Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: Dale Earnhardt Jr. May Be Struggling With Motivation

It made me chuckle that Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s recent comments about the state of NASCAR came right around the time I said that the press isn’t responsible for the sport’s declining ratings. I’m sure he didn’t get the idea to be so honest after reading an article by little ol’ me, but I wondered if Eddie D’Hondt was going to chew him out now, too.

For the six of you that haven’t heard Junior’s recent take on things NASCAR, here are some quotes:

“I think we need to open our eyes a little bit. Everyone. NASCAR could probably be a little more urgent in improving our product, where the ultimate result is great, exciting racing that the fans will enjoy, that the drivers enjoy, so everyone is happy.

See also
Beyond the Cockpit: Quick Hits With Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“I’m not trying to start a crusade against nobody or cause nobody any problems. I think the drivers, myself included, we would all work together with NASCAR to do this. I’m just trying to remind everyone of the optimal goal and prize for us is to have better racing.

“Even when things are good, we shouldn’t rest on any success we may be having. We’re not really where we want to be, I don’t think, as a sport. We need to do things to excite corporate America and excite the fans. We need to be proactive immediately to make that happen.”

Oh, and uh, before the double-file restarts, “95% of the race wasn’t worth the price of the ticket.”

Despite that these statements could come from any Master of the Obvious, a year ago Junior would have gotten his ass whipped by NASCAR for saying this. But in the kinder, gentler NASCAR of today, the only response from Mike Helton was that there would be no changes to the current car, since their concern was the costs for the teams to have to re-learn any new angles.

But given that NASCAR has been holding town hall meetings for drivers for their input a year after telling them to shut up about the car to the press, you have to wonder if the sport’s biggest star doesn’t even care what they think now. Even with NASCAR attempting to be better listeners, it’s still surprising to see a popular driver be so vocal about the sport’s problems to a press that he has to know by now will eat it up and spit it out all over the Internet, which, of course, they did.

It’s doubtful that Junior’s recent comments about the car are his way of deflecting blame for his struggles on the track. He’s smarter than that. That was the knee-jerk reaction of his detractors of course, but it’s a little too easy for him not to know that that would happen. In the past, earlier this year even, he’s been more than willing to take responsibility for not doing as well as people think he should.

Earlier this year, Junior came out and publicly defended his embattled cousin and crew chief, asserting that he was a capable mechanic and that Eury was who he wanted to run with no matter what the results. It didn’t sound like something that his father would have said.

And a year ago, he also rightly opined that the season was too long.

It’s not that the guy does nothing but complain, but you have to wonder sometimes if he’s growing weary of this job. The pressure on any Cup driver is enormous and it’s squared for the son of a departed legend.

Almost since his Cup career began, Little E has had the weight of the auto racing universe on his shoulders. He had to get back in a racecar a week after his father passed. He was put into a bright national spotlight suddenly and at a young age and has had to hold the title of ambassador ever since. As he was expected to start winning more and more, there were the public battles with his stepmother. When it could not be resolved and turned ugly in the press, he ended up leaving the company his father founded, which had to be painful knowing the team would suffer without him.

Then came the high expectations of driving for the strongest team… and not living up to them. And the abuse and eventual dismissal of his cousin as a crew chief. And the lack of respect from young hotshots.

More than any other driver in the sport’s history, Earnhardt Jr. has had to live his life in a fishbowl. Not only is the pressure great, he has to live up to expectations that the best in this sport couldn’t live up to, and answer for why he hasn’t. For all of his fame and fortune, I don’t envy the guy.

To Junior’s enormous credit, he has handled all of it very well and still doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously. But more and more evident are cracks in his love for racing. Maybe he is as frustrated as many of us with NASCAR’s “progress.” If losing Rockingham was hard on some of us, what must it have been like for a driver who grew up as a wide-eyed kid watching his father race there?

Junior isn’t the driver his father was. Not many were. But Senior didn’t have the onus of living up to a famous name, or carrying a sport on his shoulders. It can’t be as fun as it used to be. It’s one thing for Casey Mears to run in the 20s week in and week out. That isn’t a surprise. But when your father was one of the greats and you are driving for the best team, not winning any races is unacceptable to many. And the weight may be showing in the mental lapses on pit roads and elsewhere.

See also
What's Vexing Vito: For Dale Earnhardt Jr., the Light at the End of the Tunnel is No Longer an Oncoming Train

It may not even be a conscious thing. Junior certainly sounds optimistic and motivated to contend and win when asked about the subject in interviews. Surely this team has gotten a lift from Michigan. I’m sure he’s not phoning it in out there, but perhaps subconsciously there’s a part of him that wants to spend a little more time fishing on a quiet lake and a little less time trying to figure out how to race a car that handles like a bus.

NASCAR can’t live on what Junior thinks. Nor can they go out of their way to keep him from being disgruntled if they don’t want to lose every other driver’s fans. But for him to be this vocal about the car, he must either be assured that NASCAR won’t reprimand him for taking his complaints public, or he no longer cares if they do. My hunch is that after fighting to pilot the mandated flying brick for two years, it’s the latter. Given NASCAR’s well-known ability to get drivers in line in the past, one wonders if he’s inwardly ready to tell NASCAR to take this job and shove it, even if he has no plans to.

He may be aware that in times like these, NASCAR can no longer tell a driver of Junior’s stature who needs who more.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • The newsletter reported today that a new rollercoaster will be opening in Kings Dominion amusement park in Virginia called the ‘Intimidator 305’, named after the big guy himself. What’s the 305 for? You guessed it… 305 feet high before the initial drop. And 90 mph. I am THERE next year.
  • And I also see that drivers will be coming out to songs of their choice in the driver introductions this weekend. I got a good laugh out of Reed Sorenson’s choice – after reading that Mark Martin is coming out to AC/DC and Tony Stewart is coming out to Kid Rock, Sorenson will be entering the stage to the sound of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” Remember, nice boys don’t get girls pregnant.
  • Despite the new brotherly love inherent in the pre-Chase Bristol races, I still look forward to the track more than most on the schedule. Maybe it’s because I associate it with being on vacation as I will be soon.
  • When talking to Carey and Coffey at ESPN, I advised Matt Carey not to ceremoniously kick Brian Vickers out of the Chase just yet. He didn’t seem to agree. I should have offered a wager.

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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