The Ghost of Things to Come for Dale Earnhardt Jr
There was much to like about the Sprint Unlimited race for 2013. Fans had their first chance to see the much hyped Gen 6 car in true racing action. We had “the Big one” before the end of the first segment and much of the race was spent with multiple cars running side by side. Whether you tuned in for the wrecks or for tight racing action, you weren't disappointed by what you saw on Fox. Well, at least you weren't any more disappointed than you would normally be with a race going to commercial with seven laps to go.
Yet there was one part of the race that was a massive disappointment and the commentators studiously avoided mentioning it throughout the event. That disappointment was the sad performance from Dale Earnhardt Junior. I sincerely hope what we saw Saturday night resulted from a poor engine or some other mechanical problem. Because if not, 2013 has the look for a very, very long year for Nascar's most popular driver.
Even before the contact with Tony Stewart, Earnhardt did not look like someone ready to take on the challenge of drafting at Daytona. Despite complaining on the radio about the lack of progress of the outside line, the 88 sat in the outside row for lap after lap, moving forward only when the whole lane itself went forward. Even that minor progress ended after Earnhardt made contact with Tony Stewart while avoiding Joey Logano's yellow #22. That contact seemed to drain whatever little confidence Junior had as he drifted to the end of the line and stayed there through the remainder of the race.
This wasn't how 2013 was supposed to start for Dale. Pre-season articles highlighted how much the new Gen 6 car drove more like the fourth generation car- and coincidentally, that was the car Earnhardt enjoyed his greatest success in. He himself noted this in several interviews and expectations were running high both in and outside of the Hendrick camp. Then came Nascar's “Preseason Thunder” test and the massive wreck triggered by Earnhardt's attempt to bump draft a car whose bumper didn't line up. He took full responsibility for the wreck yet didn't seem too deeply bothered by what had happened. It was simply a learning experience, something to file away for when they came back to race for real.
The Sprint Unlimited race should have been the perfect opportunity to put those lessons into action. With no points to risk and only the checkered flag to gain what's the point in driving conservatively? Indeed, why bother lining up to race if you have zero intention of taking any chances whatsoever? With no points to gain by logging non-competitive laps, why not just put the car behind the wall and leave it there?
A rhetorical question, to be sure, and one that's anathema to anyone who's ever strapped into a race car. But yet it seems to be a fair question after watching that abysmal performance by the #88. I'd like to think that mechanical issues caused much of the trouble- after all, Daytona isn't the kind of track where you can afford a “sick engine” or a soft tire. You need every single ounce of speed you can wring out of the chassis because one or two miles per hour may be the difference between running up front and failing to make the field entirely.
Fear is another item that rarely gets mentioned in connection to a racer. Whether it's of personal injury, poor performance, or wrecking others, a driver cannot let fear cloud their mind on the track. Or, as Reese Bobby put it “You've got to learn to drive with the fear. There ain't nothing more frightening than driving with a live cougar in the car. If you're calm, that wonderous big cat will be calm too. But if you're scared, that beautiful death machine will do what God made it to do, namely, eat you with a smile on its face”
THAT, more than anything else, was the worry I took away when watching Dale Earnhardt Jr's performance in the Sprint Unlimited race. Instead of making the kind of dynamic moves and lane changes we've seen in the past, he pulled into the outside line and moved out of it only to avoid an accident... whereupon he slowed down, let the pack pass him, and resumed driving in the high line once again. This despite the fact that he complained about its lack of speed on the radio. This despite the fact that Earnhardt has long despised the “ride around in back” philosophy others used at the plate tracks, only doing so when his “love bug” partner Jimmie Johnson insisted on it. This despite the fact that there was nothing to be gained by finishing 10th (or worse) and with more than a third of the field behind the wall before the first segment ended.
In short, there was no logical explanation for the way he drove. If there was no mechanical reason, then the only obvious one left was fear. Fear of being the guy who caused yet another big wreck with the new car? Fear of being involved in said big wreck and the potential for yet another head injury like the one that sidelined him last fall? Fear of what befell his father at this very track? I don't know. What I do know is that the Sprint Unlimited saw much of the same Dale Earnhardt Junior that we saw at the very end of 2012; someone unwilling to stick his car in a tight crack and seemingly content to be the same mediocre to poor finisher that he's been for much of his tenure with Hendrick Motorsports.
The first half of 2012 (and indeed, the end of 2011 as well) saw what appeared to be a renewed Dale Jr. Not only did he finally snap the long winless streak but he ran up front on a regular basis and was competitive at virtually every track. Much of the credit for his career revival went to new crew chief Steve Letarte, whose relentless cheerleading seemed to restore Dale's confidence in himself. If that's the case, ole' Stevie needs to break out the pom poms once more.
Because if he doesn't, 2012 (and beyond) has the potential to be a long, frustrating year. The new car will require drivers to be intimately involved with their crews and engineers, providing accurate feedback and information on how the car behaves on track. More than that though, it will require a full emotional commitment on track to getting the most out of the car- taking the car right to its technological limit and maybe beyond. Drivers will need to trust that the safety features built into the car will protect them should they reach that beyond point. A driver who's holding back out of fear, no matter what the fear is of, will never be competitive with drivers who are.
Dale Earnhardt Junior may never win a Sprint Cup championship. He may never again be in contention for one at the season finale as he was in 2004. Time will tell on that front. But for both his own mental well being and for the emotional involvement of his legion of fans, Dale must be competitive. He must be a factor. If he's running 23rd and a lap down by the midway point most of his fans will be on to other things and Dale himself will have checked out mentally. He's never been the kind of driver to turn a 20th place finish into a top ten, something his teammate Jimmie Johnson has been a master of (which probably goes a long way towards explaining why Jimmie is Five Time). He's not likely to start now.
Lest you think this is coming from yet another Junior hater, I've never been a rider on that bandwagon. When watching as a fan, Dale Earnhardt Junior is the driver I'm pulling for and my fandom on that front goes back a decade and a half to his back to back Busch series championships. I identified with him personally and I loved the way he drove on the track. When he moved up to the Winston Cup level, I cheered for him in spite of his father, not because of him (as a Geoff Bodine fan, it was difficult to get behind the man in black). While there have been ups and downs in the years I've spent as a Junior fan, last year felt like a validation for hanging in there. Despite a rough ending to last year, 2013 dawned with the promise of more good times to come. It hasn't started out that way. Here's hoping the causes are between the wheels and not between the ears.