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Jay Busbee

Let's not mince words: what the hell happened to Junior?

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Take a good look at that photo there. It's from the very start of Sunday's Kobalt Tools 500, and it marks the very last time that Dale Earnhardt Jr. would reach the start/finish line before anybody else.

Shortly after this picture was taken, Kyle Busch absolutely blew past Junior on the outside, taking the lead before the end of Turn 1. And although Kyle wouldn't win -- the victory went to someone another branch up the Busch DNA chain -- the result for Junior was the same: fast start, disappointing finish.

Wasn't this supposed to be the year it all came together? Wasn't this supposed to be the year everything was going to be different? Wasn't the bat-outta-hell charge at the end of the Daytona 500 supposed to be the opening act on Junior Nation Domination? What the hell happened?

This week's excuse -- and, granted, this time it may be valid -- was the tires, which went south for every member of the Hendrick team. "We got two bad right side tires and right rear tires," Earnhardt said. "It felt [like] the damn wheels were coming off. We pitted and the wheel was fine, but the car was vibrating so bad I couldn’t hardly see."

We are literally running out of places on the car to blame for Junior's lack of success. I think we're down to the windshield and the window netting at this point.

I try, man. I really try. I want Junior to succeed, because his success is the best thing for NASCAR. I want to believe that he's a quality driver who's just missing by inches, inches that turn into laps. I don't want to think that the mindless haters who can't string together anything more comprehensible than JR SUX and "Hey, has anybody noticed he's not as good as his daddy?" might actually have a point.

Golf has a saying: "drive for show, putt for dough." In other words, anybody can bang the ball a mile off the tee and look tough, but it's the elite who can knock down the putts and close out the big holes when the pressure's the greatest. In NASCAR, we could modify that to "drive for show, pit (or pass) for dough."

When he's got nobody else on the track, Junior's one of the best there is. He's already got three top-4 starting positions in just four races, including a record-breaking pole run on Friday night. But introduce that pesky element of other drivers, and things start to go sideways in a hurry.

Junior's supporters will no doubt point to that second-place finish at Daytona, plus the fact that he now sits exactly seven points out of the Chase. But that's just short-term rationalization; when Paul Menard and Scott Speed are ahead of you in the rankings, something's definitely amiss. Junior needs to start giving people something to cheer about, not merely justify.

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