Thursday, February 12, 2009
Updated: February 15, 3:10 AM ET
Time's on Junior's side, but history isn't
By Terry Blount
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is approaching a dangerous statistical marker as he enters his 10th season as a Sprint Cup driver.
Only two Cup champions -- Bobby Allison in 1983 and Dale Jarrett in 1999 -- raced as long as Earnhardt has before they won their first titles.
It took Allison 18 years racing full-time before he won his only championship, two weeks before turning 46. Jarrett did it in his 13th season, five days before he turned 44.
Earnhardt is only 34, so time is on his side, but history isn't. Of all the drivers who have suited up as full-time competitors for 10 years or more, Allison and Jarrett are the only ones who became champions in their second decade of racing.
Most pass the 10-year mark without any hope of ever becoming a Cup champion. One is in the field this year -- Michael Waltrip, who begins his 24th and possibly last year as a full-time competitor.
Two drivers past the decade mark still have hope of earning that first crown. One could make history.
Mark Martin, Earnhardt's new teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, begins his 21st full-time season at age 50 with one more shot. And Jeff Burton, beginning his 16th season, remains a legitimate title contender.
But Season No. 10 for Earnhardt is somewhat of a milestone, a marker that tells every competitor how quickly a decade goes by.
For Earnhardt, it's only his second year at NASCAR's version of paradise -- Hendrick Motorsports.
He won a race and made the Chase in his first year driving the No. 88 Chevy, but any hope of a championship faded quickly with a miserable performance in the 10 playoff races. Earnhardt started fourth and finished last among the 12 title contenders.
"We should have done a lot better in the Chase,'' Earnhardt said. "Last year was about a C for us. But when the chips are on the table, we're not getting it done.
"I don't really know what to put my finger on that we need to do better. We will show up at the track and see how we do."
When pressed on what he hopes to achieve this year, one might expect his first response to be winning the championship. It wasn't.
"Every year you raise your expectations, but I never set specific goals,'' he said. "The five- to six-win mark is an excellent season for any driver. Typically that will throw you in the Chase."
Yes, but what about the championship?
"We have to get it done eventually, and this year is as good as any," Earnhardt said. "I think I've run pretty good."
That sounds a little ho-hum for a guy whose legion of fans wants to see him win a Cup title. His critics say Earnhardt lacks focus on the racetrack because of all the other things the sport's biggest celebrity has going on in his life.
Earnhardt has heard it all before.
"If there's one guy out there that would be easy to take a potshot at for not being focused and not driving hard, it's me," he said. "So I've got to go out there and drive hard every lap."
Drivers who lack focus usually don't show the intensity and emotion -- which sometimes is directed in a negative tone toward crew chief Tony Eury Jr. -- that Earnhardt often displays during a race.
It's Eury, Earnhardt's cousin, who most fans blame for Earnhardt's failings at times last year when the car wasn't as good at the end of a race as it was at the start.
"I feel bad for Tony Jr. because he's just trying to make a living," Earnhardt said. "I don't know if I would be as strong as he is to put up with all the criticism he has to put up with. He never asked for this."
Well, actually, he did. Eury knew what he was getting into when he agreed to join Earnhardt at Hendrick, realizing nothing short of a championship would suffice.
"All we can do is keep moving forward," Eury said during the NASCAR media tour. "With a year under our belts now, we've got to capitalize on what we learned and not make the same mistakes again."
Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon said his crew chief, Steve Letarte, has a lot in common with Eury.
"They have a lot on their shoulder," Gordon said. "Just like Steve, it's tough to be a crew chief for a four-time champion. And it's tough to be a crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr. You've got a lot of fans and media listening in on everything you say and do."
Earnhardt wants to do his part to help Eury perform his job more efficiently, and that means working together without conflict.
"I don't think we need a big fix," Earnhardt said. "It's just a couple of tweaks here and there, some patience and a little more professionalism and we should be fine."
Gordon said he couldn't have asked for more in a teammate than what he received from Earnhardt last season.
"When you've got somebody the stature of Dale Jr., you never really know what to expect," Gordon said. "You don't know how easy or difficult they're going to be to work with week in and week out. But he was fantastic, very open, great at describing the car and the setups and knowledgeable."
No driver and team are scrutinized and analyzed the way Earnhardt and the No. 88 crew are. When you're the most popular driver in NASCAR and one of the most recognizable sports figures in the country, everything you do is magnified, good and bad.
And the one comparison he can't escape is how he stacks up against his legendary father, a man who won seven Cup championships.
"Dale Jr. is blessed and cursed at the same time with all that notoriety," team owner Rick Hendrick said recently. "He's had tremendous pressure on him to live up to standards that his dad set."
No one can match those achievements. No one expects it. What his fans want to know is whether Earnhardt can win a championship. Just one time.
"You can't please everybody," Earnhardt said. "You do the best you can and try to be yourself."
|Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the most popular driver in the sport, but he's entering his 10th full season without a title.|
Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Terry can be reached at email@example.com.