Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Seventh NASCAR Day of Christmas: Seven Wins for Junior

No, you didn't misread the headline. Dale Earnhardt Jr. did win something this season - namely the Chex Most Popular Driver award - giving him seven wins total for this fan-driven honor.

“You look at Richard Petty and Bill Elliott and I’ve always felt that if you win this award once then you are in good company. I’m real proud of it," Earnhardt Jr. said when his win was announced. "The fans have hung in there and gave me one heck of a Christmas gift.”

Given the year the #88 team had, he's right. That proof of his continued fan loyalty had to be the lone high point in a valley-filled year. Struggling through two crew chiefs, multiple pit road issues and just plain bad luck, Junior's season seemed doomed from the start. And even though the team ran some better toward the end of '09, the black cloud that parked itself over the #88 car at Daytona didn't evaporate at Homestead - Junior's finishes were not indicative of a team that was on the right track.

If Dale Jr. doesn't come out of the gate strong in February, talking heads will likely point to Danicamania as one of the reasons why. The driver has often been accused of caring more about "his brand" than winning races - and the addition of Danica Patrick to the JRM fold certainly caused his company's marketability and sponsorship exposure to skyrocket.

Yet I predict that even if Patrick wrecks the entire field at Fontana and the #88 driver finishes in 30th place in every race in 2010, Junior will still walk away with an eighth most popular driver award next December.

Junior's likeability and resulting popularity with the fans isn't defined by his performance. That said, his future as a Hendrick Motorsports driver is - which is why the 2010 season could well be the most important year in Earnhardt Jr's career. Rick Hendrick has repeatedly said his focus will be the #88 team's performance - and he has intimated that he's ready to make whatever changes are necessary to get Junior performing as well as the rest of his drivers.

So hang on to your helmets. Whether Junior wins or loses, 2010 is gonna be one heckuva news year.


  1. This comment was sent to us via e-mail by Marybeth:

    "I hope, for Jr.'s sake, that he is out of HMS by 2010. I do not believe that he will ever be truly competitive and HMS. If RH was ready to make what ever changes necessary to get Jr. in VL he would have hired Addington as his crew chief. Jr. certainly brings in enough money to hire him. I no longer believe it when RH says he will "fix" the 88 team. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, three times, four times, shame on me.
    RH has let a lot of drivers go. After 2 years it is time to let Jr. go. If he won't let Jr. go, then I think Jr. needs to figure out the amount of money he brings into HMS in a year, and divide it by 36. Then figure out how to cost HMS slightly more than that amount every race. Perhaps by wrecking his car, that should run a little over $100,000., maybe have to wreck a teammate also...enough so that it is no longer profitable for RH to keep him, and let him go. It would pain Jr. to do this because he prides himself on taking care of his equipment. It worked for Kyle Busch. Desperate times call for desperate measures....thinking outside of the box"

  2. Hendrick saw $ signs by signing Jr. and now he is doing the same with Danica, he is in business to make money and that is what he is doing off of their names. He could care less how they run. Besides Danica will be just a field filler and go by the wayside soon enough and Jr. will be just another so so driver.

  3. How can you assume that another new crew chief is the answer? Even if the finishes didn't show it, I think the #88 team did have some promising runs towards the end of the season. Jack Roush is guilty of making the opposite mistake--I've seen him make quite a few crew chief changes over the years that I think ultimately hurt some of his teams, like when he split up Carl Edwards and Bob Osborne. I think, more than anything, Jr is simply suffering from a lack of confidence. But Denny Hamlin overcame that in 2009 and hopefully Jr can in the coming year.