I’m thinking Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn’t want it to end this way.
If it were up to him it’s very likely the Hendrick Motorsports driver would want his final Monster Series NASCAR Cup season to end on a very high note. Maybe there would be a couple of big wins, a spot in the playoffs and even a championship – or at least a shot at one.
It could all evolve into that. There is time.
But it’s not likely.
As it stands now Earnhardt Jr. is in the midst of perhaps his worse season during his tenure with Hendrick, which began in 2008.
He hasn’t won a race (in fact hasn’t come close), has only one top-five finish and just four among the top 10.
His last top-10 finish was at Sonoma. He has nine finishes of 30th or worse. He experienced mechanical failure or was involved in accidents in three of the last six races. He has seven DNFs this season.
Perhaps the exclamation point for all of this came at Watkins Glen, where he finished 37th – dead last – after suffering engine failure.
These are not the kind of numbers he would like. And the Junior Nation, which helped vote him NASCAR’s Most Popular driver for 14 consecutive years, doubtless would concur.
To be honest, this season the Hendrick organization hasn’t been the juggernaut it has in the past.
It has only four wins among its four drivers and Jimmie Johnson has three of them. Kasey Kahne won the Brickyard 400 but will be gone in 2018, seemingly not by his choice.
In 2016 Earnhardt Jr. endured his worst season with Hendrick and none of it was his fault. He sustained a concussion – again – and missed 18 races.
After that setback he, and his many fans, looked to 2017 to be a season of redemption; even glory.
But the outlook, for now, is gloomy.
There are those who theorize that Earnhardt Jr.’s mediocrity can be traced to himself. He might have lost something after his severe injury – which he surely does not want to endure again.
To add to that, he is now married, which means that anything unfortunate that happens does not affect him alone. It spreads to someone he loves and to their future.
I will allow there is logic in that. But I don’t think it’s that simple. I do not believe Earnhardt Jr. has lost his competitive zeal and will to win. If he had he would have retired a long time ago.
“I feel like I was ready to go personally and physically, Earnhardt Jr. said. “We have just not run good this year at the majority of the races. I don’t know that has anything to do with any individual. It is just that you have good years and you have bad years.”
It is very true drivers have good years and bad years. And for a lot of them their final year is a bad one.
Richard Petty’s last season in 1992 concluded with a winless streak that dated back to 1984. Darrell Waltrip’s swan song in 2000 saw him at perhaps his worst. He had difficulty qualifying.
Mark Martin didn’t win in his last hurrah in 2013. Jeff Gordon won only once in 2015 as did Tony Stewart in 2016. There are others like them but hopefully you get the idea.
Earnhardt Jr. remains confident. He has also said more than once he’s aware of how things are going and tell us his team is going to work harder to be where it should be.
“I don’t know what the expectations were,” he said. “I really don’t know what people would assume what we are capable of.
“I know what our potential is. You look at 2013, 14, 15…that is our potential. We have been progressing as a team for years all through that period. I expect us to be able to maintain that type of performance and we haven’t been able to do it.
“We just didn’t draw the right cards. Just a lot of circumstances have led to the performance of our car this year that you can’t really put on one thing.”
Let me make it very clear. Earnhardt Jr. and his team have time to change this scenario – but it won’t be easy. He has to win in the next four races to make the playoffs.
But there are 14 more races until the end of the season. To win, perhaps more than once, during that time is certainly possible.
“We haven’t really developed any speed through the season as we have progressed,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “We have some work to do before the end of the year if we want to feel like we can legitimately contend for a win.
“We want to go out and win races…it is easy to say that, but damn; we have a lot of speed to find.”
Put this season aside. The reality is Earnhardt Jr. has nothing to prove.
His future is solid. He has a successful XFINITY Series team in JR Motorsports, with which he plans to run two races next season. He might run a Late Model race or two. But otherwise, he doesn’t seem very interested in many on-track ventures.
We will see plenty of him. Starting in 2018 he will join NBC’s broadcasts of NASCAR events.
It has been suggested by some that Earnhardt Jr. may not have the credentials to be a future member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
With which I heartedly disagree.
As soon as he becomes eligible, Earnhardt Jr. is in.
Count on it.
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