2011 NASCAR Race For The Chase: How Does Dale Earnhardt Jr Get Into Contention?

Lee ScogginsContributor IOctober 8, 2010

DOVER, DE - SEPTEMBER 26:  Dale Earnhardt Jr. (L), driver of the #88 AMP Energy/National Guard Chevrolet, talks with team owner Rick Hendrick on the grid prior to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway on September 26, 2010 in Dover, Delaware.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
Chris Trotman/Getty Images

There has been a lot written about Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s woes and much speculation about who is at fault. There is probably a little bit of truth in everything that has been written.

For 2010, a new spirit of cooperation between the No. 88 and No. 5 teams was the order of the day, with personnel shuffled around and information shared with an eye toward giving Earnhardt's team more information to help them be successful. The results so far have been spotty at best for Junior, while Mark Martin's performance in the No. 5, GoDaddy Chevrolet has fallen well short of the previous season.

Most multi-car teams in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series could learn a few things from the Childress crew. For most of this season when Kevin Harvick was having a good day (which obviously happened a lot), you could usually expect Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer to be having similar success. It would be easy to assume that the three teams must be sharing information in an effective way.

For several years at Hendrick Motorsports, at least one of the four teams that organization fields could be expected to run significantly behind the other three. First, it was Brian Vickers, then Casey Mears, and then Dale Earnhardt Jr. In 2010, both Junior and Martin are trailing well behind the performance of Gordon and Johnson. It appears the teams are not sharing information in an effective way.

Logically, it would then appear that information sharing is the first thing that needs to be fixed. Even the satellite affiliated teams at Stewart Haas are performing more like Johnson and Gordon than Earnhardt and Martin are. I'm not an expert in this area, but some changes to overcome the difference in physical locations of the four teams at Hendrick need to take place. Having the 24 and 48 in one garage, and the 88 and 5 in another does not make it easy to share information.

The next thing that needs to happen for Dale Jr. to get back to his expected performance is to spend more time on the race track. I wish I could say that this idea was totally mine, but Darrell Waltrip actually voiced this idea a while back. If I were Rick Hendrick, I would encourage Junior to get behind the wheel at every opportunity in at least the top three NASCAR series.

Getting seat time in the Nationwide series should be pretty easy, since Junior has an interest in JR Motorsports. I can't imagine there would be a scarcity of sponsors who would hesitate to jump at the opportunity to have Junior behind the wheel of a car they could sponsor.

In the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, I would hope that a deal could be struck for Junior to jump behind the wheel in the sort of deal that Kyle Busch had with Billy Ballew, namely driving for just the chance to pick up trophies. It's not like NASCAR's most popular driver needs the money. According the last figures I saw, he's still the proud recipient of the highest annual income of any NASCAR driver.

The one thing that is obviously lacking in Junior right now is confidence. A couple of wins in Nationwide or Camping World Truck Series would do a lot to put his head back in a good place.

Although the actual handling of the different vehicles in the different series doesn't carry over, the ability to communicate what the car or truck needs to the crew chief could be used to help Junior and Lance McGrew share information to help improve the car's handling as a race progresses.

Most of 2010 has seen the No. 88 fade to the back even in those races where they qualify well and run strong in the beginning. That indicates that Junior is not able to tell Lance what the car needs or make the needed changes. If it's the latter, good communication and consistent good performance with other crew chiefs would allow Hendrick to better pinpoint the problem.

Having said all of this, I have to say that I am not necessarily a Dale Earnhardt Jr. fan. Nor am I a hater. I do recognize, however, that a better performance by Earnhardt would be good for the sport. NASCAR's Most Popular Driver for the past seven seasons should be running better than he has been. Besides, I can almost guarantee an increase in attendance at the other two series any time there's a race where Junior is entered.

Earlier in his career Dale Earnhardt Jr. enjoyed moderate success behind the wheel of a NASCAR Sprint Cup car, especially on the tracks at Talladega and Daytona. When, and if, the right formula is hit upon, he will be able to have the same kind of success.

Until that happens, there is absolutely no chance he will ever be able to contend for a championship. His biggest footnote in the NASCAR history books will be that he was a third-generation Earnhardt to race in NASCAR.