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Waiting for Dale Junior

By Jeff Findley

This is Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s 11th season as a full-time driver in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series.

After winning Nationwide Series championships in 1998 and 1999, Junior made his much-heralded debut on the big stage in 2000. Driving for his father and Dale Earnhardt Inc., Junior fielded that cool-looking red Budweiser No. 8 Chevrolet.

Junior won at Texas and Richmond his rookie season and finished a respectable 16th in the final standings. In fact, Junior’s performances steadily improved over the next several seasons. From 2000-2004, he won 15 races and his worst finish in the points standings was the 16th in his rookie year. His highest finish was third in 2003.

Since 2005, the well has all but run dry for Junior. In the 204 races since 2005, Junior has three wins and a best season finish of fifth in 2006. The last three years Junior has finished 16th, 12th, and 25th. He currently sits in 18th this season and I wouldn’t expect a finish much higher than that when the season ends in Miami in early November.

Despite those severely declining numbers, Junior has been voted the sport’s most popular driver for seven years running and is, by far, the sport’s best compensated driver with earnings approaching $30 million a year.

In the middle of 2007, after not being able to come to an agreement with his stepmother, Teresa Earnhardt, about the future direction of DEI, Junior made the huge announcement that he had signed a five-year contract to drive for Hendrick Motorsports and Rick Hendrick.

Conventional wisdom then was that Junior would be winning races and competing for championships in short order under Hendrick’s wing. There was no reason to believe otherwise. Let’s just say that things haven’t worked out the way anyone thought.

Remember, Hendrick jettisoned Kyle Busch to make way for Junior. In the three seasons, including this year, since Junior joined Hendrick, Busch has won 15 races for Joe Gibbs while Junior won once, at Michigan in 2008.

Last season, Hendrick’s four teams finished first, second, third, and 25th in the standings. No matter how to look at that fact, those numbers are astounding.

I provide this background to ask one question—how long is Rick Hendrick willing to put an average team on the track? Hendrick is not an average guy and seemingly doesn’t tolerate average; just ask Casey Mears, Wally Dallenbach, or Ken Schrader.

We are about to finish the third year of a five-year contract and there is no doubt Junior will continue to drive for Hendrick next season. What changes, if any, will be made to this team to improve the performance?

There have been crew chief changes and engineer changes to no avail. Is the driver the problem? Who knows? Does Hendrick want to win races and compete for championships, or sell T-shirts and have the most popular driver?

Rick Hendrick produces winners, and if it can be done with Junior, it will be under his watch. But I am afraid the patience might be running thin.