DAYTONA, Fla. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. says his career got off track four years ago. And he's right. It did.
He won 15 races in his first five seasons at the Cup level, including a career high six in 2004. Going into the 2005 season, he not only had the popularity thanks to his last name, but also an on-track record to justify it.
Since then, however, he's been to victory lane just three times – not including last year's win in the Bud Shootout, an exhibition race he's set to defend Saturday at Daytona International Speedway in what is the unofficial start of the 2009 NASCAR season.
Now, nine years into his career, what once seemed like a given – that Earnhardt would follow in his daddy's footsteps by winning a Cup title – is about as certain as the troubled economy.
"The last [four] years I haven't been doing the things I thought I would be doing," Earnhardt said Thursday outside the massive 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway. "I haven't competed like I felt I should be competing.
"I felt like I was on a upswing ever since I started in the Cup series in 2000 all the way to 2004. And I made some choices, and I let some other people make some choices, and I started to go in the wrong direction."
Earnhardt pointed to the crew swap prior to the 2005 season, when he and then teammate Michael Waltrip switched cars and crews, as one of those wrong choices. In retrospect, that might have been the beginning of the end of Earnhardt's tenure at Dale Earnhardt Inc.
After finishing fifth in the standings in '04, Earnhardt missed the Chase entirely in '05. He was back in again the next season, but followed that up with a brutal 2007 in which he went winless for the first time in his career and failed to make the Chase, again.
By that point, family loyalty couldn't even keep him at DEI. Winning means too much to Earnhardt, and at 33, time was slipping away, which is why after the '07 season he made the difficult choice to leave his father's company for archrival Hendrick Motorsports.
"That's been the biggest hurdle to try to get over or the biggest thing to try to reverse," Earnhardt said of his backwards slide. "So my switch to Hendrick was really what I thought would catapult me in that direction again to where I would go back toward improving upon each year and each race and to become more and more of the total package."
This is music to the ears of Junior Nation, who look for any and all excuse as to why their driver isn't winning. But there may be something to this.
There are only six active drivers who have won more races than Earnhardt's 18, and at the beginning of last season, no one was more consistent than Junior, who had 11 top 10s in his first 15 races with Hendrick.
The flip side is that Earnhardt still only won one race last season, finished dead last in the Chase and this year will be the fourth-winningest driver on a four-driver team that includes the three-time defending champion (Jimmie Johnson), a four-time champion (Jeff Gordon) and arguably the greatest driver to have never won a title (Mark Martin).
But isn't this exactly why Earnhardt Jr. made the move to Hendrick – to align himself with a proven winner?
"I feel more comfortable, a little less concerned," he said. "Going into a race season with a new team you haven't had any laps with, you really wonder how it's going to work out. And now we kind of have an idea that we're a pretty good team and if we make a few adjustments, do some things right, get some good breaks, we can be a great team.
"I feel pretty confident. There's really no worries."
Actually, that's not entirely true. Whether he admits it or not, Earnhardt seems to wear a lot of worries on his sleeve, most of which have to do with the sport's prosperity. Because whenever there's a problem in NASCAR, be it lagging attendance, fan criticism of the racing or poor television ratings, the solution is always the same – get Junior in the spotlight.
It's an easy answer that, in all probability, would work. Nothing against Johnson, but if Earnhardt were the three-time defending champion, NASCAR would have its own Tiger Woods or Lance Armstrong – athletes who carry their niche sport into the mainstream.
No matter how unfair it is, the weight of the NASCAR world falls directly on the shoulders of Junior.
So Saturday, when the green flag drops on the Bud Shootout, the focus will be squarely on the 88. Fans will be rooting for Junior because they love him; many of the suits will be doing the same, because as Junior goes so do they.
And inside the car, Earnhardt will be turning a steering wheel, with nothing more than the fate of a sport in his hands.