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Earnhardt Jr. still struggling to measure up
The wins of the father have been, in a sense, visited on the son.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. inherited plenty from the old man _ fast reflexes, fearlessness and the biggest tribe in NASCAR _ but too many expectations and, so far, too little of his staying power.
He’s won plenty of races, but none the last two years, and only once since switching to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, a move that was supposed to settle the question of whether Earnhardt was overrated or just stuck driving underpowered cars out of loyalty to the old man’s team for too long. Then there’s the matter of yet another anniversary.
Sunday marks 10 years since Dale Earnhardt Sr. died in a last-lap crash at the Daytona 500. The son has tried to honor his legacy in a dozen ways before, even swapping the red paint job on his then-No. 8 car for a likeness of his father’s black No. 3 at Talladega five years ago, on the same weekend, no less, than Earnhardt Sr. was enshrined in the hall of fame there. None of them has made much of a difference.
That explained, in part, Junior’s reluctance at the start of the week to talk about what a win in the sport’s Super Bowl this Sunday would mean.
“I think I’ve become more reserved, maybe due to how I’ve seen me be judged or analyzed. I’ve sort of changed my outward approach a little bit toward everybody,” Earnhardt said Wednesday. “But I’m telling you, if I can get back to the racetrack and I can win a race and run well, it’ll get a whole lot easier.”
The problem would be Earnhardt’s alone, except for this: The fate of no other pro sport depends so much on an athlete who isn’t close to being the best in his game.
Every time Dale Sr.’s second son and namesake has won, the needle on the TV ratings box rocks. So many people want Earnhardt to win, starting with NASCAR boss Brian France and extending all the way down to the garage mechanics who revere the old man and genuinely like the son, that his every move is plumbed for some deeper meaning. So naturally, when he won the pole position last weekend, the conspiracy theorists went to work.
Old-timers still talk about the day an aging Richard Petty finally got his 200th NASCAR career win _ on July 4, 1984, with President Reagan in the stands _ as though it were ordained from on high. And it might have been. Petty, 47 at the time, never picked up No. 201, despite eight more years spent trying.
Then there was the unexpected boost from Las Vegas bookmakers, who tabbed Earnhardt at 10-1 to win, a curious choice since his Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson, who’s won five season championships in a row, came in at only 12-1. But Earnhardt crashed his pole-winning car in practice Wednesday, which squashed the conspiracy talk and most likely his chances of winning.
Peel back all the layers of extra attention and what you’re left with is a driver low on confidence. The move to Hendrick three years ago gave Earnhardt access to better equipment, but it also meant taking a backseat to the team’s two other stars _ Johnson and Jeff Gordon _ at least until his resume is as glossy as theirs.
“He’s just under the microscope every minute,” team owner Rick Hendrick said earlier this week.
“I can’t tell you how I would handle what he’s trying to handle, and that is carry on his father’s name, have a business that he takes care of, make everybody happy, and the sport needs him to do well. He’s getting it from everywhere. He has no safe zone.”
The wear and tear has become more apparent as the week wears on. After the crash trashed his front-line car, Earnhardt gloomily questioned why he was out practicing. After Thursday’s qualifying race, nearly all of which Earnhardt spent stuck in the middle of the pack, he complained about the lack of a partner to push him around the track _ a necessity for anybody hoping to win on the faster, recently repaved surface at Daytona International Speedway. Then he pointed yet another finger at the car.
“We need to find a little more speed on the car. Guys are able to run a little bit longer than we are without swapping,” Earnhardt said. “We need to find a little better deal on the cooling.”
By John R. Bolton
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