THE SPORTS DOCTOR- Junior moment: Fans loyal despite Earnhardt's losing streak
An alert to fantasy racing enthusiasts: Dale Earnhardt Jr. dropped five spots in NASCAR point standings after his loss in Richmond on May 1. It's the biggest hit any driver has taken so far this year, and with his losses mounting, the rumors abound that Hendrick Motorsports are on their way to a Junior-free future.
Don't get me wrong— Junior's a likable guy (he certainly seems personable enough on those Nationwide Insurance ads), but how much longer can likeability sustain him? Earnhardt Jr. may be the son of one of NASCAR's most enduringly popular drivers, but a career that started strong is now running on fumes, a fact of which Junior seems distressingly aware.
Taking a quick look back at his career, it's a miracle Junior retains any fans at all, much less remains NASCAR's most popular driver. Once considered racing's heir apparent, Junior hasn't won more than one Sprint Cup Series race a season since 2004– and in 2007 and 2009, he didn't win any.
This year is starting out no better. Of the 10 races he's run so far in 2010, Junior has placed in the top 10 only three times and cracked the top five one time, only once less than last year. He has gotten the pole once, though, already besting last year's count.
To be fair, it can't be easy being Dale Earnhardt Jr. Seeing his father die on the track and watching his stepmother turn the family racing team into a snake pit would send anyone into a debilitating depression. But somehow the 35-year-old Junior persists at the sport that has virtually ruined his life twice. And that just might be the problem.
When a driver loses 134 of 135 races, he has to do something fast. But the only thing fast about Junior is his readiness with an excuse. He has recycled last year's favorite for this season: it's not him, it's the car. Back in February, after finishing 32nd at Fontana thanks to a broken axle, Junior (who struggled far more than his teammates), blamed the crew.
"I can't build the cars, you know?" he said. "What do you want me to do? I just drive."
Complaining that his car is sub par shows how desperate he has become. This is his third year driving for Hendrick Motorsports, the Yankees of the racing world. About 75 percent of NASCAR fans count a Hendrick driver as their favorite. This is one rich team, boasting not only Junior, but also Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, and others.
With money like that behind him, is Junior paranoid about his car's being a lemon, or is Hendrick deliberately sabotaging or ignoring him? After all, Junior hasn't been a winner for the team.
Or has he? Junior may not win races, but he certainly wins the hearts of racing fans everywhere. Last December, the man who didn't win a race all year and finished 25th in the point standings won his seventh consecutive NASCAR NMPA Chex Most Popular Driver Award. Only Bill Elliott and Richard Petty have won more.
Now that's love.
And what about those point standings? NASCAR is set up so that winning a race is the icing on a rather dubiously organized cake. While race victories have gained importance after a 2007 adjustment in the point system, consistency is still the ultimate winner. Every race is worth the same number of points (only two are worth no points), breaking down according to finish with bonus points added for laps led. That's the beauty of NASCAR: a loser can still be a winner.
So when Junior says, "I'm looking for a strong finish" for the umpteenth time, he's talking like a winner. But so far this season, his driving has gotten worse and worse. He finished second at Daytona, but a dismal 32nd at Richmond.
Junior's right about the quality of his car: he's had trouble with it all season. But he hasn't been winning races for a long time. At the end of the day, though, it's Junior who commands the fans' adoration, and for all their money, that's something Hendrick can't buy.
Juanita Giles lives in Keysville where she makes videos and updates her Sports Doctor site.