One of the hackiest metaphors of sportswriting, a land where hack metaphors grow and thrive like kudzu, is the "panic button." Why you'd want to push a button that tells you – or causes you - to panic is beyond me, but you'll see this tired little cliché trotted out every single time a known commodity in the sports world begins faltering. It's cheap, it's meaningless, and it adds absolutely zero insight into a rapidly deteriorating situation.
That said – if there were such a thing as a panic button, it'd be about time for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to stand on it.
After a highly promising start to the season - three top-5 qualifying runs in four races, a second-place finish at Daytona, a Chase berth all the way into May - parts are starting to fly off the 88 team at an increasingly worrisome pace. If Dale Earnhardt Jr. were a rock band, he'd be Guns n' Roses - a Hall of Fame-level start to his career followed by a steep decline toward irrelevance.
Look, before Junior Nation gets all up in arms and whines about how negative I'm being, let's face some facts. No, he's not his daddy; nobody is or ever will be. Put aside the last few seasons; let's just focus on 2010. Yes, he would have won Daytona if he had another mile's worth of track to catch Jamie McMurray. But his last three finishes are 32, 18 and 30. He hasn't led a lap since Talladega, and even then he only managed to stay out in front for eight laps at a track he used to own.
What ought to be concerning Junior Nation is the way he's not even close to competing right now. Whether it's through incorrect setups, poor communication or -hey, let's get it out there - declining skills, Junior simply isn't a threat to win at the moment. His average finish is four places below his average start - 16.7 from 12.7 –meaning he's unable to sustain the good position he gives himself in qualifying.
Can he turn this around? Of course. Regardless of how poorly he's running right now, he's still one of the best drivers in the world. The difference between himself and, say, Jimmie Johnson is a lot narrower than the difference between himself and a career Nationwide driver.
But how to turn it around? Ah, there's the question. Does he need some time in a lower series to stack up some wins? Does he need to consult his elders, who surely have wisdom he, in his 30s, doesn't? Does he need to clean house and bring in a new pit team? All these ideas have some merit, but all have huge drawbacks, too. Junior doesn't have unlimited time left; at some point, he can't keep scrapping seasons and chalking them up to "experience."
I want Junior to win. A strong Junior is a strong NASCAR. (Conspiracy theorists, please note that if NASCAR was rigging races, don't you think the 88 would be in victory lane a little more often?) But after the last few weeks, we're precipitously close to seeing yet another season go over the cliff for the 88 team.