The mystery of the struggles of Dale Earnhardt Jr. continued Sunday night with a 22nd place finish at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Since 2005, NASCAR's most popular driver has been on a roller coaster ride that has more falls than climbs. In 2004, the third generation driver was on top of the world. Coming off a six-win season and his second consecutive top five finish in points, many looked to Junior to contend for the Nextel Cup in 2005 and many years to come.
Then came the Crew Chief change at the beginning of 2005, which led to a subsequent change and a 19th place points finish. It was a decent season in 2006, but another missed chase in 2007 and the move to Hendrick in 2008.
The move that shook the racing world started off well: By midseason, Earnhardt had one win and was in the top five in points. The coaster then topped the hill and has been going down ever since.
Another Crew Chief change yielded much the same results. What now? Many speculate, but let us look at what realistic options there are for the sport's biggest star.
Tough It Out at Hendrick...as Long as Rick Allows
This is the most likely scenario at this point. The No. 88 team has been on and off, but can still salvage the season with some solid runs. However, this needs to happen soon. If Dale is not in the top 12 by August, it is probably not going to happen.
Earnhardt needs a "click" race where McGrew hits the setup and finds what he has been missing. This type of moment has happened in several Crew Chief/driver relationships and needs to happen for the No. 88 crew.
Move Somewhere More Familiar
RCR has room and is running well. What's better than Earnhardt and RCR? I am not suggesting he drive the No. 3 car, but RCR is a good option. This would be what many thought should have happened in 2008. Would it work? Who knows, but if Junior falls out of the top 20 in points in 2010, he may decide something has to change.
Go Home to DEI (Earnhardt-Ganassi)
The No. 8 car is open; Budweiser has no driver. Could Junior wake up in 2011 and act like the last three years never happened? This is probably unlikely, but weirder things have happened. It sure seems to be working for Jamie McMurray.
Get a Fresh Start
What would be a completely fresh start? Moving to a team like Michael Waltrip Racing or Richard Petty Motorsports. This is even more unlikely, but an option to be sure. At MWR, he would be reconnected to former teammates Michael Waltrip and Martin Truex.
At Petty, he could stay with a U.S. manufacturer and be associated with The King. MWR seems to be more on the upswing than Petty, but these two teams would do anything to get him. The separation from Chevy makes this 99 percent impossible, but in the silly season, nothing is completely impossible.
A lot of people say this, but this is not an option. Junior knows what it is like to make something from nothing—it takes a LONG time. This will not happen.
Retire from Driving, Become a Full-Time Owner
No one wants this (except for those cranky Kyle Busch fans in various comment sections), but Dale Earnhardt Jr. has to decide what he wants and go after it with all his heart, soul, and mind. If he can't, option six, despite the tears that will come from the Junior Nation, may be the way he decides to go.
When things are going well, Dale Earnhardt Jr. can drive the wheels off a race car (see 1998, 1999, 2001, 2003, 2004). Dale Sr. would not have put him in his cars if this were not true, but the last few years have brought him to this crossroads. At 35, his next move has to be the one that counts.
Let us hope he makes the right one, because NASCAR is eagerly waiting for an Earnhardt to be in Victory Lane again.