COMMENTARY | BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Why can't Dale Earnhardt Jr. win?
That's the question that keeps getting asked week after week as NASCAR's favorite son marks the one-year anniversary of his last win -- at Michigan in June of 2012.
There is no question that Dale Jr. is the most popular driver among NASCAR fans (if you don't believe me, just come to a race and see which souvenir hauler has the longest line), but that hasn't translated to results during his time at Hendrick Motorsports. (Prior to the 2012 Michigan win, it had been a whopping four years since Dale Jr. had taken a checkered flag).
So what's the deal?
Asked directly Friday at Michigan about his winless streak, here's what Dale Jr. said on the topic.
"Well, we have come close. We almost won Charlotte last year when we ran out of gas coming off the corner. I don't know if we could have won Daytona this year to beat Jimmie (Johnson) if we had a few more laps. It's been good to be close. That is the difference I think between where we are and where I want to be."
Earnhardt isn't just gunning for one win either. He wants to do what his teammate Jimmie Johnson does: Win early, win often and win championships. Everyone wants that of course, but when you're driving for Hendrick Motorsports you have a legitimate shot at doing so.
He wants that to be expected of him, he wants it "to be the status quo".
"We want to win more races. We want to win numerous races and multiple races in a season. We want it to be the status quo. We want that to be the norm. We want that to be what is expected," Earnhardt said. "We are like a lot of teams trying to find that extra step. It's difficult to win in this sport. It's really competitive. It's not much more for us to be able to get to that level to be able to win more than just that off chance such has been the case last year."
Earnhardt is driving a Superman-themed car this year. He was fast in practice, but his 12th-place qualifying effort was decent but not super. That's not the end of the world, but at a track like Michigan where horsepower is so important, he's going to have to step things up on Sunday if he's going to contend with high-powered competitors like Carl Edwards and Kurt Busch -- who are sitting on the front row, just ahead of Jr.'s teammate Kasey Kahne.
Things are looking up for Dale. He was a legitimate contender to win last week at Pocono, and hopes to gain some momentum from that effort and avoid the bad that plagued his team prior to Pocono.
"We had a great run last week that sort of hopefully got us back in the right direction. We talked about it last week after the race, but we kind of had some misses here lately and not many hits. As far as showing up to the race track and being competitive and getting the job done putting together a full weekend. We haven't been able to do that. We started the season off so promising the best that I had ever started a season. It just seemed like things were going so perfectly and it's the way it is in this sport. You will think you have everything going in the right direction and then odds and fate and everything else get in the way."
Perfection is the keyBeing at Hendrick Motorsports is a double-edged sword. Yes, you get the best equipment available. That's the upside.
But the downside is that your teammates do too. And you can only have one winner each week. Jimmie Johnson wins all the time, and Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon are no slouches either. Throw in the fact that Toyota (Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer etc.) will win some races, and other competition stepping up now and again, and it's not such a simple thing to claim a win.
You can't make a mistake. You can't just be good, you have to be perfect, from your engine to your aero setup to your pit stops. Dale Jr. and the #88 team are good, but not great at this point. They're not too far off (Jr. is fourth in points, so he hasn't had a terrible year), but they need to figure out what is missing if they want to get any wins and be a legitimate title contender in 2013. He's finally in a good place with his crew chief after so many years of swapping, but it's not only about that relationship. That's a critical piece, but the other pieces must be there too.
To explain his team's situation, Dale Jr. used an analogy.
"It's more difficult to see growth and improvement within the team when you are part of the team. It's kind of like when you are a kid and you are getting taller. You are 10, 11, 12 years old and you are wanting to be six foot three (inches) one day you can't tell you are getting taller unless you are marking the door jam. Otherwise you wouldn't notice any change of height. That is kind of what it feels like when you are part of the team. You don't really notice when things get a little bit better or things get a little bit worse. Really what you end up doing is you are never really satisfied just like that kid, you are never really satisfied with where you are at. You are always wanting to be better."
Brad Keselowski, the 2012 Cup champion who also has not won in 2013 and is on the edge of the Chase, said he could relate to Dale Jr.'s struggles to get to Victory Lane.
"For any driver or team, past success is not a guarantee of future success. You still have to put the work in, whether you're the reigning champion or winner of a race, that guarantees you nothing," Keselowski said. "You still have to go out and earn it. That's what I love about this sport. That's part of my own challenge for this year."
Window closing?The overall looming question is that Earnhardt isn't getting any younger, so does this mean he has to start racking up wins and titles now or never?
He doesn't think so, saying there's no career clock ticking in his head:
"No, I don't really feel that urgency. I feel pretty young still. I feel like I'm in good shape. I feel young in my mind. I feel like I have good energy. I'm not burning out. I think that the passion and the commitment probably goes before the physical end of it goes in this particular sport. I feel like I'm in the best opportunity of my career. There is a 'seize the moment' kind of feeling because I'm in such good equipment around such good people. I don't feel like there is a clock in the background ticking away that is annoying me or anything like that."
He's right to some extent, but in a way there is a clock there, even if he doesn't hear it.
The reason is that with so much young talent coming up, and with guys like Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch not going away, it's going to get harder and harder to win as the years go on. That's the nature of the beast in this sport, and sports in general. So realistically, if Jr. doesn't start to win races this year or in the very near future, the window to do so may be lost.
Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. ever return to winning races in large amounts like he did when he was still at Dale Earnhart Inc. driving the #8 Budweiser car? Probably not. I think that ship has sailed and his prime is in the past.
But there's no reason he can't be a guy who is usually up front and takes a win or two each year. He just needs for all the pieces to fall in place from time to time.
And he has an army of fans who keep waiting for that to happen.
Matt Myftiu lives in Michigan, has been a walking encyclopedia of NASCAR since immersing himself in the sport over 15 years ago, and has worked as a journalist for two decades. His blog on the sport, NASCAR: Beyond the Track, has been published by The Oakland Press for the past 5 years. Follow him on Twitter @MattMyftiu .
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