(photo courtesy Leon Hammack)
Almost as impressive as the Hendrick Motorsports 1-2-3 finish in the 2009 Chase points standings was the total absence from the lead group of Dale Earnhardt, Jr., HMS fourth driver. While Jimmie Johnson was busy celebrating the team’s fourth consecutive championship and Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon were filling out the trifecta for Hendrick Motorsports, the #88 AMP/National Guard team with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was buried in 25th place in the standings. One of the worst finishes of a HMS team and unquestionably Dale, Jr.’s worst finish in his Sprint Cup career!
In Hendrick Motorsports 25 year history of competing at the Sprint Cup level in NASCAR, there have only been two instances that one of his full times teams have finished worse than Dale Earnhardt. Jr.’s 25th place in 2009. Terry Labonte finished 26th in his final year with HMS in 2004, and Brian Vickers was 25th his first full year in the #5 Kelloggs Chevy that same year.
It has now been 57 races since Dale, Jr. won his one and only points race since moving over to HMS in 2008. That race was the June race in Michigan in 2008, won on fuel mileage, or fumes! For a driver at his peak, Earnhardt, Jr. is in the depths of a dark valley!
Once viewed as a certain future Sprint Cup champion by most of NASCAR and by almost everyone in the wide constituency known as JUNIOR NATION, he now seems to be wondering aimlessly, and definitely in need of structure and focus.
The NASCAR numbers don’t lie! In his first five years at Dale Earnhardt, Inc. (DEI), Dale, Jr. drove his Dad’s cars to 15 victories and an average finish of 8.6. The next five years, which includes the last two years at HMS, he has won three races and has an average finish of 15.4!
The 2009 season results are considerably worse than last year, when Earnhardt, Jr. at least qualified for the Chase, but slumped to 12th place at the end. But let us not forget that his team has suffered through some of the worst luck throughout the 2009 season imaginable. Not withstanding, the general performance has been so extremely poor that his best finish in the final twelve races was 11th place at Talladega.
In light of the fact that Earnhardt, Jr.’s performances at DEI were stained with his father’s untimely death at Daytona 2001, and a very deteriorating relationship with his step-mother and the new owner, Dale, Jr.’s two seasons with Rick Hendrick have not even come close the quality of his finishes at DEI! Earnhardt, Jr.’s departure from DEI and subsequent signing at Hendrick Motorsports was the single biggest story of the 2007 season! There were great expectations by all in NASCAR that the series most popular driver and the most successful organization presently in NASCAR would be a huge successful combination!
Instead the hunt for victories has been almost a futile attempt. There has been a strain in the relationship by the separation of cousin and crew chief Tony Eury, Jr and Earnhardt, Jr. The #88 AMP/National Guard team has been on the back burner at HMS, while the other three teams mates, Jimmie Johnson, and Mark Martin finished 1-2-3 in this season’s point standings.
So far, the first two years of the marriage of Hendrick Motorsports and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has produced rather lackluster results, nothing like the projected anticipation of many victories! Two years later the #88 AMP/National Guard team has but one lone victory, many unanswered questions, and enough frustrations to fill a 22 gallon gas tank. Along the way Dale, Jr. has admittedly questioned everything, including his own ability to win races.
For a driver with the NASCAR world at his feet, Junior has found himself at the bottom staring up at most of the other competitors! And now the 2010 season and the Daytona 500 is less that 50 days away, the mission continues to try to find the right combination for victory at the #88 AMP/ National Guard Chevy.
There are many fans waiting, in fact all of JUNIOR NATION [Workingonmyredneck included], waits for the second coming!
TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!