It’s Champions Week and Dale Earnhardt, Jr, NASCAR’s most popular driver, won’t be in New York for the festivities. Again. Count it as the number one reason I won’t go out of my way to watch it.
Excerpts from Joe Menzer:
When the top drivers of the 2008 season are introduced one-by-one to come up on stage and be recognized Friday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will not be among them for the third time in four years. Since the Chase format was introduced in 2004, he has made the main stage at the end of a season only twice — placing fifth in points in ’04 and again in 2006.
This year was supposed to be different, and it certainly started out that way.
Ditching the supposed wicked stepmother, Teresa Earnhardt, and the company she was busy running into the ground that was founded by his late and legendary father, Earnhardt Jr. was starting anew in a No. 88 Chevrolet fielded by the most successful owner currently operating in the business, Rick Hendrick.
Former champion Darrell Waltrip predicted Junior would win the season-opening Daytona 500 and “at least” six races during the 2008 season. When Earnhardt opened up Speedweeks in Daytona by winning both the Bud Shootout and his 150-mile qualifying race for the 500, Waltrip was looking like a genius.
So was Hendrick. You got the feeling early on that if Mr. H would have been pressed hard to predict a champion from his crop of drivers at Hendrick Motorsports, he would have at the very least hemmed and hawed a good bit before picking Jimmie over Junior.
Earnhardt seemed that hot, that focused.
But while he placed fourth in some of those key statistics to Johnson, Edwards and Busch, Junior literally lagged miles behind when it came to actually chasing down victories. The aforementioned Terrific Three accounted for 24 Cup victories between them.
Hendrick admitted he was disappointed in this, citing at one point that it was the result of having “tremendous little gremlins bite us, from tire problems to things you can’t control.”
The truth is, it wasn’t all the fault of those tremendous little gremlins. There were some things that could have been controlled and weren’t. Crew chief Tony Eury Jr. might have gambled more at times for victories, risking those precious “positive points finishes” in the process. The entire No. 88 team might benefit from Earnhardt not panicking and ripping into them every time he feels something vibrate in the car after running in the top five most of the day.
Junior never won again after Michigan in early summer.
Yeah, well, most of the rest of us expected a whole lot more than that. Most of the racing world expected Junior to at least be walking up on stage this Friday night at the Waldorf-Astoria.