Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Long Road
NASCAR's most popular driver has come full circle since 2004
By: Matt Taliaferro | 6/20/12, 2:05 PM EDT
Earnhardt in Daytona, 2004. (by ASP, Inc.)
Sunday, June 17, will be remembered by Junior Nation as they day when their boy finally came home. Much like John J. did at the end of Rambo, Dale Earnhardt Jr. came full-circle, literally, this past Sunday in the Irish Hills of Brooklyn, Michigan.
After 143 races and four years of futility, Earnhardt won the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway and moved to within four points of the championship lead currently held by 2000 rookie classmate, friend and former Busch Series rival Matt Kenseth. It wasn’t a fuel mileage fluke as his previous win at MIS in June 2008; it was, as his old man once said, “an ass-kickin’!”
Since that last win a number of changes, both within his team and with the driver himself, have taken place. Truth be known, the last seven years have been less than productive for the driver whose surname is synonymous with success — as well as the entire sport in which he competes. While he has endured many unfortunate and unfair tags (there is actually a website dedicated to his drought), this dry spell of Old Testament proportions harkens back to the 2005 season.
Many are quick to jump on the bandwagon and bash a driver when he’s down. Those new to the sport that recognize the name but wonder what all the hype is about may not know the story of Earnhardt’s eight-year dilemma. It’s a long road from where he came from to get back to racing relevance in 2012. And this is how he got here:
2004: The ’04 season saw Earnhardt winning the race that took his father 20 attempts at conquering, the Daytona 500. What was a lifetime struggle for The Intimidator, Junior knocked out in only his fifth attempt. He would go on to win six races that season, and not just on the plate tracks that were the domain of what was Dale Earnhardt, Inc. during the early- to mid-2000s.
If not for a fiery accident during practice for an ALMS race in Sonoma — the site of this weekend’s Sprint Cup race — and a slight misjudgment of a pass on Carl Edwards late in the going at Atlanta with only four races to go in the championship chase, Earnhardt may have won the Cup title. There was also the matter of a 25-point fine for an innocuous slip of the tongue during his Victory Lane interview at Talladega, a reminder of how things had evolved in the sport since his late father won his seventh championship some 10 years earlier. Surely, this would serve as the springboard to propel him into the rare air of Daytona 500 and Sprint Cup champion in 2005 …
2005: The season started with a shake-up within the Dale Jr. brain trust. The idea was to end the bickering between Tony Eury Jr. and Tony Eury Sr. – his cousin and uncle who served as principles on his No. 8 team – by bringing in new chief Pete Rondeau. It was a total team swap between the flagship No. 8 and then-driver Michael Waltrip’s No. 15 machines that saw Waltrip’s results improve slightly, but sunk Earnhardt’s into also-ran status. Competition Director Steve Hmiel was installed as interim crew chief after just 11 races, with the No. 8 team winning one race, a fuel mileage gamble at Chicagoland. The rest of the season was a disaster, with finishes in the mid-30s par for course, ending the year 19th in points, well out of the Chase.
2006: Earnhardt was reunited with cousin Eury Jr. once again, and the performance returned — although it was spotty at best. A win at Richmond in the spring was his lone triumph of the year, but he did qualify for the Chase. A second win at Talladega was snatched away on the final lap, when Brian Vickers hooked teammate Jimmie Johnson on the backstretch on the final lap, who then hooked Earnhardt, sending both spinning through the infield dirt. This also began a period of instability at DEI, with more outsiders coming in to what had been a family-oriented and operated race team with its namesake driver going into the final year of his contract.
2007: Things got off to a rocky start before the 2007 season even began. At a preseason test and media event at Daytona in January, RCR driver Kevin Harvick deemed Teresa Earnhardt a “deadbeat owner” whose absence from the track was having a negative impact on the DEI teams of which she was listed as CEO. During this time, Earnhardt admitted that his relationship with his owner/stepmother “ain’t a bed of roses,” but was quick to defend her following Harvick’s comments.
It was, however, a glimpse into the dysfunction that had become DEI, as well as Teresa Earnhardt’s refusal to cut her stepson into the company that bore his name. The 2007 season also marked NASCAR’s first in-race dabbling with the first-generation CoT, and with it came a new set of challenges to compound matters.
Eury’s out-of-the-box CoT tinkering brought about a whopping 100 point/$100,000 fine, as well as a six-race suspension following discovery of illegal wing mounts to the car at Darlington. It was a harbinger of things to come, and it would end up being the first season since his full-time arrival in the series that Earnhardt failed to win a race.
The bombshell that dropped in May found Earnhardt, his sister Kelley and Eury Jr. leaving the operation at season’s end. Earnhardt and Eury headed to Hendrick Motorsports, while Kelley moved to Earnhardt’s Nationwide team, JR Motorsports.
Earnhardt wins the Bud Shootout in 2008 with HMS. (ASP, Inc.)
2008: Earnhardt’s arrival at Hendrick Motorsports was met with the sort of pomp and circumstance as LeBron James and Chris Bosh joining Dwayne Wade in Miami. The group won in their first outing together at the Bud Shootout in Daytona that year, while pundits and prognosticators were predicting multiple wins and a legitimate shot at the championship. Hendrick’s No. 48 car had won the title the past two seasons, and the No. 88 group was seen as a new contender to the throne at HMS once occupied by Jeff Gordon.
The 88 team got off to the strongest start of the Hendrick bunch that year, posting 10 top 10s in the first 15 races, including the now-infamous fuel mileage gamble win at Michigan in June. What followed, though, was the type of flopping normally reserved for soccer games and fat guys at pool parties. Only three top-5 finishes followed the win, leading to a 12th-place finish in the Chase while teammate Johnson went on to claim his third consecutive championship.
2009: Much like the ’05 and ’07 seasons, the 2009 campaign was on shaky ground before the season began. Rumblings that Eury might be on a short leash plagued the team early, while a disastrous season-opening Daytona 500 did little to quell those rumors. The team only scored one top-5 finish in the first 23 races — a second at Talladega, the result of Carl Edwards bouncing off of Ryan Newman’s windshield and into the frontstretch catchfencing.
Eury was removed after a 40th-place run at the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, replaced with Lance McGrew. Further compounding the pressure to perform for Earnhardt and the No. 88 bunch was new teammate Mark Martin, who at 50 years of age came back for a full campaign for the first time in three years. The stablemate to the 88 won five races and contended for the championship with Johnson, though as so many others before, fell just shy.
2010: As Ray Liotta, as the late Henry Hill, said in Goodfellas during his downfall, “This … was the bad time.” Despite a charge to second in the closing laps of the Daytona 500 that was reminiscent of his father’s final win at Talladega, things degenerated quickly in 2010. Early in the season, Earnhardt and McGrew could be overheard in a testy radio exchange at Bristol after the crew chief’s motivational tactics by questioning his effort did not sit well with the driver, who knew many were listening.
What followed was finish after finish in the 20s and 30s, and the emergence of a big, weird beard that resembled Ted Kaczynski more than Tim Richmond. His body language began to show his frustration, as did mumbled, incoherent answers in interviews, as he tired of the constant questioning of what was wrong and why he wasn’t winning (as if the past four seasons weren’t enough of a distraction).
Earnhardt finished the year 21st in points, as Johnson won his fifth title. During Johnson’s five-year reign, Junior amassed three wins — two of which were fuel gambles. Of course, Johnson was never in a power-struggle with his stepmother to remain part of the company that had his name plastered on the marquee, nor was he fighting to keep his cousin atop the pit box where he wanted him.
2011: With two painful and wildly unproductive seasons in the books, team owner Rick Hendrick decided that massive changes were required to get the 24 and 88 teams competitive. In essence, Gordon was moved to what was Martin’s team led by Alan Gustafson, while Martin was shuffled to Earnhardt’s team. In turn, Earnhardt was paired with Steve Letarte and Gordon’s former team. Perhaps most importantly, the newly-christened No. 88 team was now paired with the No. 48 group, which had run roughshod over the competition for the past decade.
Early returns were encouraging. Three top-10 finishes in a row from the sixth race of the season at Martinsville (that saw him lose the lead — and the win — to Harvick with three laps remaining), Texas and Talladega. Three different tracks, three consistently strong performances. The Coca-Cola 600 in May marked an ironically unfortunate and coincidentally catastrophic Memorial Day weekend, which saw both National Guard-sponsored cars at Indianapolis and Charlotte lose guaranteed wins on the final turn of the final lap. A gamble on fuel mileage would not pay off for Earnhardt as it did three years earlier at MIS — and thus the drought continued.
As a side note, Martin, who had won five races just two seasons prior, was able to do no better with what had been the No. 88 team the season before, finishing 22nd in points.
2012: Go ahead and feel free to insert whatever cheesy movie quote you want here. Either Burt Reynolds' character Lewis in Deliverance declaring, “sometimes you gotta lose yourself … to find yourself,” or Colonel Trautman’s “you will always be tearing away at yourself until you come full-circle,” in Rambo III. Or just recognize that even the best racecar driver isn’t going to be able to do much with cars that aren’t competitive.
In 2011, Letarte and Earnhardt learned to work with one another, how to communicate, motivate and learn what Junior needed in a racecar. In 2012, the execution of the prior year’s labor began to bear fruit.
Fifteen races into the season and the No. 88 car has completed every competitive lap. Consistent top-5 and top-10 finishes now replace top-25 showings. Sunday’s win was a milestone for sure, but more so a validation of what has been a championship-caliber team all season long.
A runner-up Daytona 500 finish wasn’t just the quad-annual-decent-Dale Jr.-plate-track-run, it was prologue for the rebirth of a driver who slowly wandered off the reservation amid family and professional turmoil. No longer does he retreat to his motorhome and exit the track as soon as possible to beat traffic, he stays to discuss and debrief with his team, as involved post-race as he is pre-race.
Things have changed quite a bit since the criticism of Dale Earnhardt Jr. began nearly five years ago. DEI exists in name only as a way to sell t-shirts and market sponsorship for Chip Ganassi’s racing teams. Meanwhile, sister Kelley, Eury Jr. and Eury Sr. are firmly ensconced at JR Motorsports, fielding entries for Danica Patrick and Cole Whitt in the Nationwide Series. Junior is picking up where he left off in ’04, with a hot girlfriend that everyone now knows about, and he is spared the lame, uninspired “When will you win again?” questions that followed him for nearly half a decade.
And if you really want to know why it took him so long to win, just go back and re-read this column again — full-circle.
by Vito Pugliese
Follow Vito on Twitter: @VitoPugliese
Most Popular Articles
Sign Up For Our Newsletter
Get the latest news and find out what our Athlon Sports experts have to say each week.
Contests & Promotions
Athlon Sports Fantasy Racing!
Enter the Athlon Sports Fantasy Racing game. Just head over to athlon.myfantasyracing.com and register for your chance to win a chance to watch a 2014 race from the grandstands. You'll also have a chance to win other amazing prizes such as an autographed Kyle Busch helmet.