In the wake of Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s popular Pocono triumph, there was one stat that resonated this week while reviewing the turnaround the No. 88 team has enjoyed over the course of past few seasons:
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is in the midst of his first multiple win season since 2004; i.e., a decade.
That 2004 season was a defining one for Junior; he won the Daytona 500, kicking off the year and suddenly was a threat to win virtually every weekend, not just at restrictor plate tracks – though he still ruled the roost there as well. He was also working to become a well-rounded racecar driver. It would be an American LeMans Series race at Sonoma that he’d enter on an off weekend that would nearly prove to be his undoing from the championship fight – and possibly much worse. Knocked unconscious and concussed, he sat dazed in his C5 Corvette as flames erupted around him. Suddenly, he rose from the drivers’ window and collapsed to the ground. He would later tell Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes he felt “somebody” lift him from the car – though there was nobody assisting him out.
Oh ye of little faith, draw your own conclusions on that one…
Despite his wounds, Earnhardt would man up and perform well in The Chase, staying in contention for the title until a self-imposed Atlanta accident, in the late laps took him out rather violently. It was a nine-month growth spurt for NASCAR’s Popular yet wayward son, seemingly lifting him into the role of racing heavyweight his Dad always believed was possible.
Yet after the year which saw him become what many had expected, given his name and the burden that came with it, followed several more filled with distraction, disappointment, and from the outside what looked like depression.
How could one of the premier drivers in the business fall so far so quickly? It didn’t happen overnight. Below is an outline of how Dale Earnhardt, Jr. went from icon of the sport, to nearly obscure, back to championship form — in just a hair under 10 years.
2005: Despite having a career year and the best season ever for DEI as an organization, it was decided to swap the teams of Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Uh, yeah; why not? Junior was paired with Pete Rondeau, a relative unknown name to fans or those not intimately familiar with the personnel of DEI and Junior’s Chance 2 Motorsports then-Busch Series team. Following a third in the Daytona 500, the results were concerning. You had a 32nd at Fontana after blowing three left front tires, a crash 11 laps into Las Vegas, and a particularly sour outing in Atlanta where he qualified 35th and finished 24th. Rondeau was replaced with Steve Hmiel, DEI Technical Director and long-time architect and backbone of both DEI and Roush Racing’s formative years. A veteran head wrench, the team won at Chicagoland Speedway and it briefly seemed Hmiel had righted the ship. But the rest of the season was a roller coaster of up-and-down finishes, as Earnhardt ended up 19th in points, his worst season at that point of his career.
2006: With Cousin Tony Eury, Jr. as Crew Chief, Junior was back with family and those who knew him best atop the pit box. He’d win one race at Richmond and qualify for The Chase. A second win at Talladega was nixed on the last lap when Brian Vickers mistimed a move with teammate Jimmie Johnson, taking out both the Nos. 8 and 48 machines for his first career victory. Earnhardt would run well, but was never a threat to contend for the championship following a 22nd-place finish at Martinsville. On the filp side, Jimmie Johnson put together a stretch of runs that saw him finish second four times in six races (the other two being a win and the incident at Talladega where he was running second on the final lap.) No one was going to catch that.
2007: The final Dale Jr. days at DEI were dark ones, indeed. The season started off with a back-and-forth between Junior and stepmother Teresa Earnhardt, then Kevin Harvick stepped in… while Junior defended Teresa. What now? Meanwhile, a new principal was hired from outside the family, the company, and NASCAR – music executive Max Siegel – to head up DEI. Junior had negotiated for more involvement with the company and ownership; after all, he had been the Dale Earnhardt in DEI for the better part of a decade. When it became clear that it wasn’t going to work out and Kyle Busch was out at Hendrick Motorsports, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. made the decision that he would abandon the ship his father constructed for he, sister Kelly, and brother Kerry.
2008: Things got off to a good start with the No. 88 team at Daytona, winning the Sprint Unlimited. Rick Hendrick told his new driver, “This is a great way to start our deal together buddy!” The first 15 races produced seven top 5s, a pole, and a win at Michigan International Speedway on Father’s Day weekend. It was a strong start and a timely win for NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver; however, it was also under a cloud of rumors that crew chief Tony Eury, Jr. might be reassigned within the company. What should have served as a launching pad for second half of the season instead caused the team to stumble. They collected only five top-10 finishes the rest of the year, finishing last in the Chase and trailing Johnson by over 550 points.
2009: While the Dark Days at DEI were bad, the ones that followed at HMS were possibly worse. It was during this time that Junior became distant and despondent in the garage and in interviews. An uncharacteristic maneuver while running up front in the Daytona 500 caused a large wreck, devolving into a slump where Junior generally ran like a midpack team with no technical alliance – as opposed to being employed within the largest motorsports operation in North America. How bad was it? The No. 88 team collected just five top-10 finishes all season long; meanwhile, across the shop, 50-year-old teammate Mark Martin, in his first year in the No. 5 scored the same amount of wins.
To add insult to injury, Johnson won the title that year, with Martin a close second, and Jeff Gordon in third. Dale Earnhardt, Jr.? 25th. Check, please…
2010: Enter the weird beard and mopey phase. The only thing missing by now was eye liner, black hair, and an iPod jam-packed with The Cure and Morrissey tracks. The season was slightly less suicidal with three top 5s versus two, and top-10 finishes increasing by 50 percent. Yeah, I know…do the math and it’s a lot more depressing. Flashes of brilliance were still there, however. Earnhardt made a last lap charge in the Daytona 500 to make it interesting, won a pole in Atlanta, yet any decent performance was promptly followed by four races of total garbage. The Chase wasn’t even a consideration by Sonoma, and while Jimmie Johnson won his record fourth straight title and Jeff Gordon came home ninth, the No. 88 finished outside the Top 20 in points for the second straight season. It was clear a change had to be made.
2011: With the No. 88 team taking on water fast, it was sink or swim time for Hendrick Motorsports. The famed 24/48 shop was now the 48/88 shop, while the No. 5 team was paired with the No. 24. Alan Gustafson was moved to be paired with Jeff Gordon, after it was announced that Mark Martin would leave the team at the end of 2011 to make way for Kasey Kahne. Lance McGrew, Earnhardt’s crew chief from 2009-10 after Eury got axed was moved to Martin’s team, where the results were telling. Martin, who had won five races and nearly the title just two years earlier, would manage a 22nd place points finish – one lower than Junior the year before in the same car.
That meant Dale Earnhardt, Jr. would be paired with Jeff Gordon’s longtime crew chief and HMS pillar, Steve Letarte. The results were encouraging early on. There was the Daytona 500 pole, two runner ups at Martinsville and Kansas, with a Coca-Cola 600 win a painful corner and thimbleful of fuel short. The results on paper showed one more top 5 but four more top 10s. More telling, Earnhardt began to communicate more effectively, got a little of his fire back after an incidental run-in with teammate Martin at Michigan, and began to show some legitimate signs of a rebirth, qualifying for The Chase for the first time in three years. He ended the year seventh in points and began the slow road to career revival.
The one saving grace? A Nationwide Series win in July, driving his father’s famous Wrangler colors, with the No. 3 residing in Victory Lane once again with Little E in Big D.
2012: For Junior Nation, this will be known as his Renaissance Period. OK, that’s a bit overdramatic, but compare the 2012 stats to the 2009 trail of tears: a win, Chase qualification, and finishing out of the top 10 in the first 20 races just four times. Entering Talladega during The Chase, Junior was still mathematically in contention for the title. A last-lap accident that collected virtually the entire field would have played in his favor to erase that had he made it through; except he didn’t. He sustained a concussion in the accident, which was following a hard hit during a crash while testing at Kansas. He would miss the next two races, effectively ending any title hope, but helping to set the stage and example for drivers missing races rather than concealing a condition and attempting to race anyway, as stock car drivers had become conditioned to do.
For the second straight year, his shop teammate did not win the title either, falling to the only full-time Dodge driver in the field, Brad Keselowski.
2013: The 2013 campaign was a replay of 2012, with the exception of no wins, but a couple of more top 10s (22) and a fift- place championship points finish. He actually would have had a shot at the title, had it not been for a blown motor in the first race of the Chase at Chicagoland, caused by an accident on pit road which blocked off the air flow to the cooling system. Steve Letarte and Junior put together a Jimmie & Chad-type run during the final 10 races with four top 5s, eight top 10s, with the Chicago engine incident and a 15th-place run at Charlotte the only stumbling blocks. While it was another step in the right direction, it has set the stage for what has transpired this season.
2014: The title track to the Rambo series of movies is Dan Hill’s, “It’s a Long Road”, and as Col. Trautman asked his warrior, “When are you gonna come full circle?” It took a decade, but Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has done just that. In what will be Steve Letarte’s final season before he steps off the war wagon and into the broadcast booth, 2014 has been what many had expected 2005 and beyond to have been. Right off the bat, Junior won his second Daytona 500 and lit up Twitter in the following weeks, suddenly becoming easily accessible, affable, and no longer the reclusive Howard Hughes of the motorhome lot. Think we’re overselling things? Daytona was followed up by a runner-up at Phoenix to Kevin Harvick, who everyone knew on Friday had it won. The 88 was about to go to Victory Lane in Las Vegas, the next week until the engine coughed ¾ of a mile from the checkered flag, handing Brad Keselowski the trophy instead. Earnhardt was in position to win the Southern 500, too when a late-race caution upset the strategy that appeared to have things wrapped up. Sunday at Pocono, he kept his car in contention until the end, leaving Lady Luck to pay off in a way she hadn’t for most of the past half-dozen years.
It’s hard to fathom how the Most Popular Driver in the sport went from winning six races and being an icon to what appeared to be one of broken confidence, spirit, and possibly the worst thing a race car driver can become: irrelevant. The last few seasons have been a work in progress mentally, emotionally, physically, and mechanically. But for a driver who wears the name “Junior,” yet is nearing 40 years of age this October, it’s been a ten-year transformation that happened in just the nick of time.