Monday, September 22, 2008

Filling Some Very Big Shoes

It's just not the same anymore. In 2001, NASCAR lost one of it's largest personalities ever on February 18th. That was the day that the flame of Dale Earnhardt was snuffed out, the flame that had burned like a road flare among birthday candles for so long. NASCAR indeed lost a hero and one of its greatest drivers that day. But yet a son remained.

It's not been all celebrity and fun and games and drinking beer for Dale Earnhardt Jr. since then. Dale Jr. has built a reputation as a business man, beginning with JR Motorsports which fields 2 Nationwide series teams. Dale Jr. later created his own TV production company and his own popular Charlotte night spot called Whisky River. He still drives a race car, the 88 Chevrolet Impala SS for owner Rick Hendrick. Dale Jr. is in the Chase for the Cup, and he's a proven winner.

But at the age of 33, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has no Sprint Cup championships to his name yet. As a two time winner of the Busch series, which is now called the Nationwide series, Dale Jr. is indeed a champion, and a proven race winner. 18 wins in Cup since 2000 is a record that many veteran NASCAR drivers would love to have. He's won the Bud Shootout. He's won the All Star race. He's won the Daytona 500. He's basically done it all but win a championship, and for many of his critics, nothing means anything at all unless he wins at least several championships.

Critics of Dale Earnhardt Jr. are many and varied, but most follow one common theme, which is that he would not even be racing were his name not Earnhardt. According to his critics, Dale Jr. is highly over rated, and basically has a driving talent quotient of exactly zero. If you read many of the message boards and comments to articles posted from all over this land, you will get a taste for the abject hatred that many people feel for NASCAR's most popular driver. Many feel that the MPD title is undeserved, and then eventually they say they don't care because he hasn't won a championship. It is true that any driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. included, would rather have the title of Sprint Cup Champion added to their list of achievments rather than being the sports most popular driver.

I'm sorry to report to the many Dale Jr. detractors that his 18 wins and Daytona 500 victory put Dale Jr. in a class that very few drivers, past or present can boast much about. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has won exactly as many races as has Kurt Busch, who is the 2004 champion. He's also won exactly as many races as Geoffrey Bodine, Harry Gant and Neil Bonnett. If you don't recognize what an achievement that is for a guy that's been racing for 9 years in Cup for full time, you don't know your NASCAR history. With one more win, Dale Jr. will tie Buddy Baker and Davey Allison. With two more wins, Dale will tie Jeff Burton's current win record. Jeff's been around a lot longer than Dale Jr. In other words, for a grossly over rated driver, Dale Jr. seems to have a pretty impressive record.

It's probably not as much fun anymore for Dale Jr. as it used to be. The tiring ordeal with leaving his father's company, Dale Earnhardt Inc. to make the move to Hendrick Motorsports must have made for a lot of sleepless nights. Many of his critics call him a traitor for ever leaving DEI. I beg to differ, however. Anyone with the name Earnhardt has to know that it's better to go with a winning team, with better equipment and more resources as far as engineering and technical support than it would be to stay with a team that served up a whopping 10 engines that failed to finish races last season. An Earnhardt will always go to where the racing is. This Earnhardt did just that, and I seriously doubt that Dale Earnhardt Sr. would have had any problem understanding that.

Tony Eury Jr., Dale Jr.'s cousin and crew chief has spoken of the switch from DEI to Hendrick. He left DEI early last year to get a head start on learning the Hendrick equipment and personnel. Tony Jr. has mentioned that he has had to work harder at HMS than he had to work at DEI. He has more resources available to him, and he's finding that he's spending more time in the shop than he ever did at DEI. Tony Jr. doesn't mind though, as long as it all adds up to better performance. Though many will criticize Tony Jr.'s decisions from on top of the pit box, his peers at HMS feel that there is a good reason for him to be where he is. General manager Marshall Carlson said. "Tony Jr. is one of the smartest guys we've got at that whole place. He's as sly as a fox, …He made friends with everyone through that place, front to back, so that when the season started, it was pretty neat to see everyone through the organization, all these channels of support they have, they were all pulling for Tony and Dale."

Hendrick Motorsports and Dale Jr. have the opportunity to do great things together, and for those who discount Dale Earnhardt Jr. as a driver with little or no talent, I would advise you to remember one thing. This is only the first year out of a multi year contract, and Dale Jr. is performing. He's not where he wants to be, but he's getting there, slowly, race by race, lap by lap. Beware, detractors: Before you disparage a man you don't understand, make sure he's not kicking your driver's tail out on the track. Regardless of what you might think of him, I'll bet that his old man would be proud. I am.

Tony Eury Jr.'s comments supplied by Brant James at the St. Petersburg Times

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