— Dale Earnhardt Jr. is at a crucial crossroads in his career. His competitiveness has disappeared and his fans need an explanation on why he is throwing away another year of his career. In May of 2007, he decided to walk away from his late father's company, DEI, because he couldn't come to a long term business agreement with his stepmother Teresa Earnhardt. Hendrick Motorsports signed him to a lucrative deal, where he replaced Kyle Bush in a five-year commitment to become part of the most successful team in NASCAR. A Sprint Cup title is his ultimate goal and he changed race teams to make this happen.
As we begin April, Earnhardt, however, is quietly becoming a NASCAR bust. Most members of the media will not go near this topic because they do not want to be associated with any negative talk when it comes to NASCAR's media darling. The sport is desperately tying to bring in more advertising dollars during this global recession and Junior is their cash cow. NASCAR fans continue to buy his merchandise and tune in to watch him race whether he wins or not. This, however, can't go on forever.
Talk about a dry spell.
His teammates include Jimmie Johnson, who has 40 career wins and three championships, and Jeff Gordon, who has 81 wins and four Cup titles. Earnhardt has 18 career victories and hasn't won a season title. He had one win last season at Michigan Motor Speedway in June. Before that, his drought dated back to victories in Richmond in 2006 and in Chicago the year before. On many occasions, he’s been in the heat of the race, only to have disaster strike, leaving him and all those around him pressured and frustrated.
Earnhardt is a tremendous role model and great business man, but that doesn't seem to get him anywhere close to Victory Lane. His competitors have been very successful in a short amount of time. Johnson is the Michael Jordan of NASCAR and on his way to becoming the only driver to win four championships in a row. Kyle Bush is the best young driver around and he could easily dominate the sport for the next 15 years.
Many have speculated Rick Hendrick will shake up Junior's team in the next few weeks and fire Tony Eury Jr., the crew chief of the No. 88 car. On my radio show I asked Hendrick, “How long can you stay behind Tony Eury Jr? How long can you stay behind him and give him all your support?”
“There are four to five key guys that help me manage this thing,” Hendrick said. “When we all see that we’ve done all we can do, we’ll make that change. Removing Tony Eury Jr. will not fix it. We have other situations we’ve addressed. We’re getting better, the communications is getting better. We’ll pull the trigger when there is nothing left to do. We can’t put a time on it. Right now, I can’t see this happening because we are making too much progress.”
It is clearly time to get Earnhardt out of his comfort zone, push his internal buttons, and challenge him to drive at a championship level. Earnhardt is 16th in the Sprint Cup standings and has not won a race or finished among the top five in any race this year. This is a business and Junior is failing miserably on the track. A change needs to be made and Hendrick is the man in charge. It’s unfair to compare Eury Jr. to Gordon's crew chief, Steve Letarte, or Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Kanaus. Those two crew chiefs have won multiple championships while Eury’s record speaks for itself.
Eury and Earnhardt are cousins and it is always difficult to make tough decisions when family is involved, but that is why Hendrick needs to change his position on this matter before the season is lost. The current philosophy for Earnhardt's team is to remain patient, keep working hard and the wins will follow.
With a trip to Talladega looming on April 26, it is time for Earnhardt to wake up and understand what is at stake in the next few weeks. He had better be in contention at Texas Motor Speedway this
Sunday before a week off and the series resumes in Phoenix.
He needs to qualify well and compete in these next two races, proving that his team is on the same page before Talladega. If he can win at Texas or Phoenix or at least finish in the top five in one of those races, he will carry serious momentum and a fired up fan base into the state of Alabama.