By admin | December 9, 2009
By Richard Allen
Hendrick Motorsports drivers Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon finished 1-2-3 in the final NASCAR Sprint Cup standings. Both Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman, driving for what amounts to a Hendrick subsidiary, qualified for the Chase for the Championship and had strong runs throughout the season.
Hendrick Motorsports driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr. finished a dismal 25th in the Sprint Cup standings with no wins, only two top-5s and five top-10s. His average starting position was 22.2 and his average finishing position was 23.3. He managed to lead only 146 laps all season. Those numbers reflect the worst performance of his career in both average finish and laps led. He has won only three races in the past five years.
Something is obviously wrong. In 2009 we learned that fixing whatever is the problem with this driver and team may be easier said than done.
Being neither a Junior fan nor a Junior hater I believe I can look at this situation objectively. Having said that, I do not believe the most popular driver in NASCAR’s fans are going to like what I have to say.
It seems as if there is going to have to be a major change in the mindset of the driver before any other issues can be worked out in this team. Even the most avid Junior fan has to admit there are lack of focus issues that were at the root of several of the his poor finishes this past season.
On numerous occasions Junior missed his pit stall in 2009. Every driver has that happen over the course of a long season, but it happened all to frequently to this one competitor. The pit road goofs often put the #88 Chevrolet back in the pack which lead to further troubles. The season opening Daytona 500 served as an excellent example of that.
I have never driven a racecar. However, it seems to me that Junior’s driving style often creates many of the problems he encounters.
No other driver worthy of note is so quick to move his car to the top side of the track and race right against the wall for virtually the entire race. And often, we see Junior make up ground early because he is running a different line from everyone else, but later, we see that he has hit the wall and caved in the side of his car. Every driver runs high on the track from time to time. Junior does it all the time and the results show that it has not worked in his favor.
Also, by listening to Trackpass and a scanner when actually attending the races, I have found that Junior offers far less feedback to his crew than any of the other HMS drivers. It seems as if the crew chief, no matter who it may be, is often left guessing as to what the car needs.
A few years ago, Junior’s step-mother and then car owner, Teresa Earnhardt, said that he needed to decide whether he wanted to be a race car driver or a commercial making, rock star type celebrity. It appears to me that she was more right than many people would have liked to admit.
And to potentially add to this problem of unnecessary distractions, Junior has signed Danica Patrick to drive for his Nationwide Series team. The media frenzy that will surround her will run the risk of gobbling up her car owner, no matter how much he may actually have to do with the day to day operation of that team.
Lack of focus in the driver’s seat, running a saloon in downtown Charlotte, and making all sorts of appearances and commercial shoots are not helping Junior’s driving career.
So, 2009 proved that Junior’s issues will not be fixed easily. And the year showed that at least some of the driver’s problems are his own.
With all of that said, however, it is also the responsibility of Hendrick Motorsports to provide cars Junior can drive. Despite a somewhat popular belief among some, Junior is not driving R&D cars for the other HMS drivers. Rick Hendrick did not get to his station in life by making stupid decisions and that would be a stupid decision. However, the cars he is being given obviously do not suit his driving style.
Mr. Hendrick recently announced that fixing Junior would be his top priority in 2010. Part of that fixing will be for his organization to do what is necessary to get Junior focused. And, they will have to figure out what kind of car best fits him. He has obviously struggled with the Car of Tomorrow but so have many others. As the popular saying goes, “It is what it is” so it has to be figured out by each team.
Junior did not get fixed in 2009. It is important that he get fixed sometime soon. The sport needs its most popular driver to be a competitive factor.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association. His weekly column appears in The Mountain Press every Wednesday.
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