The most popular driver in NASCAR became mired in mediocrity for a couple of seasons, yet last year and this, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has shown signs of progress. Words Tom Jensen | Main image Tom Pennington/Getty Images
One of the great truisms in sport is that you are what your record says you are. Since joining Hendrick Motorsports
in 2008, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s record has
been hugely disappointing – just one points
race victory (Michigan in ’08); just one
top- 10 points finish (seventh last year).
And just nine top-five race finishes from
2009-’ 11 – fewer than mid-pack runners
like Marcos Ambrose, Joey Logano and
David Reutimann over the same period.
Much was expected when Earnhardt
joined NASCAR’s most elite team, but
precious little has been delivered so far,
at least on track. Everyone has a theory
as to why Earnhardt has underachieved:
There have been suggestions that Junior
is too nice a guy and needs to race with
more aggression, while others say that
with an estimated net worth of about
$300 million, Earnhardt isn’t especially
motivated. And then there is NASCAR’s
equivalent of the Single Bullet Theory,
espoused by the fanatical elements of the
Earnhardt Nation – that Jimmie Johnson
and Jeff Gordon get the “good” Hendrick
cars, while Junior gets the lesser goods.
All at Hendrick Motorsports, from Rick
Hendrick down, vehemently deny this.
Still, whatever the reason,
Earnhardt’s record in recent years has
just been OK, not anywhere near the
lofty heights expected by Earnhardt, his
Hendrick Motorsports team, his sponsors
or his fans. And yet there are encouraging
signs that this year Earnhardt may be
poised to make his most serious title run
since 2004, when he finished fifth in
points and with five races to go was
second, just 24 points behind eventual
champion Kurt Busch.