Friday November 20th, 2009

SI.com's Mark Beech takes a spin around the racing world for the most intriguing stories in and out of the garage.

No matter how you look at it, 2009 has been Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s annus horribilis. With no wins, two top-five finishes and five top-10s, he had the worst full season of his Cup career. The most dispiriting part is he really seems to have no excuse. During his final years at DEI, when his winning ways were on the decline and his presence in the Chase was an irregular occurrence, we heard a lot about how things would be different if only he had better equipment. And we believed.

But since he made the jump to Hendrick Motorsports of last season, he's hardly been any better. In fact, he hasn't been better at all. Everything is different for Junior now: new cars, new equipment, an abundance of resources and money, a team that is second to none. He even has a new crew chief. And here's what he has to show for it after 71 races: one win, 12 top-five finishes and 21 top-10s. Such totals would represent a bad season for Jimmie Johnson. They're actually worse than Junior's results in his last two years at DEI.

And through it all, nobody has been more up front about Junior's decline than the man himself. He's taken the jibes from Kyle Busch, endured the vociferous doubters in the media and allowed Rick Hendrick to demote his own cousin from on top of his pit box. He's never ducked questions or refrained from acknowledging that he might be the problem.

His candid approach is nice, because it's abundantly clear at this point that he is the problem -- the common denominator in every failure he's experienced of late. Whether it's that he hates the new car (we know he does), there's an inability to communicate with his crew chief (we know he's struggled with this) or whether he's just lacking confidence (he's got to be shaken by this), there's no question that NASCAR's most popular driver is stuck in a seemingly endless spiral of underachievement.

And since there's no doubt that the talent is there -- he won two straight titles in the Busch series in 1998 and 1999 -- we have to assume that part of this is in his head, that he is perhaps struggling with something that, in its own way, seems to be as debilitating as anything we've seen in other sports. Tom Watson's serious case of the yips reduced an eight-time major championship winner into just another golfer for a few years. And Rick Ankiel had to give up pitching altogether when he suddenly couldn't throw strikes. Maybe the June-bug is gripping the wheel just a little too tightly these days.

Can he ever win another race? Of course. Put the man on a track like Daytona or Talladega, places where he's always run well, and he's as good a bet as any. Can he ever compete for a championship again? As the taillights fade on the 2009 season, that's a question that will be left hanging in the air.

25 Worst finish Jimmie Johnson could have at Homestead if he is to retain his lead in the Cup standings

13.6 Johnson's average finish at Homestead

2 Number of times Johnson has finished 25th or worse at Homestead

No, it's not Cup racing, but Michael Schumacher's drinking-and-driving PSA is worth your time nonetheless. The message here is, of course, that drinking and driving don't mix -- even though nobody here is drinking. Maybe it's more like, "Mixing and driving don't mix." I don't know. It's fun nevertheless. Now I want to know how they cleaned up the mess they made inside the car.

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