Tom Bowles
Tuesday May 25th, 2010

Whenever any column on Dale Earnhardt Jr. gets written, you have to expect an overwhelming fan reaction. As usual, you didn't disappoint, so let's get right to it this week. If your comment failed to make the cut, keep trying at or on Twitter at @NASCARBowles. I'll do my best to get you in next week.

As the e-mails piled in on the Earnhardt-Lance McGrew marriage of mediocrity, the majority of your responses centered on a clear theme: It's the driver, stupid!

While sitting on a plane on my way up north, I sat next to a scout of sorts for a NASCAR organization who put it bluntly. "What people won't admit is Junior isn't very good. He ends up with a bad car and doesn't know how to describe what is wrong (either in testing or racing). This isn't going to change overnight." I think if it wasn't for the endorsement money he brings in, Junior would have been off the circuit long ago.

--Ray Wulff, Annapolis

Anyone think maybe it's just Junior? I like him a lot, but even after making crew changes, things are still not going well. There's only so many other places to look before you have to look at the driver.

--JD, Cincinnati

Is it possible that maybe, just maybe, Earnhardt's not as good as everyone thinks he is? Cheers!

--Chris Turkel, Cheshire, Mass.

Doubtful Junior's going to hold up a glass to that one, Chris. Clearly, looking at his results the past three-plus seasons, they don't hold a candle to Jimmie Johnson's, Jeff Gordon's or even Joey Logano's. Critics claim the talent level never fully translated from father to son, similar to the Richard Petty/Kyle Petty phenomenon of a generation ago (The King has 200 NASCAR victories, while Kyle retired with only eight.)

But before you write Junior off as a guy with a famous last name, let's not forget the run he had during a career that may have peaked in 2003-04. During that two-year period, Earnhardt won eight times, piled up 42 top-10 finishes and ended the years third and fifth, respectively, in Cup points -- a type of sustained success current superstars Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, and Kevin Harvick can't claim. In all, Earnhardt has 18 career victories, placing him tied for eighth among active drivers and tied for 37th on the all-time list. Those numbers aren't half bad.

So where has it all gone wrong for NASCAR's Most Popular Driver? Sometimes newer isn't always better...

Earnhardt just cannot drive the CoT. Wing or spoiler, it does not matter. At one time, he was a good driver, now he is just riding the coattails of his father. His "fans" can continue to blame the crew and his chief, but the fact is the driver is the problem.

-- T.J. O'Keefe, Columbus, Ohio

T.J.'s got it nailed. That one victory in 100 Car of Tomorrow starts is what really sticks out to me. For whatever reason, Earnhardt just hasn't figured out how to adapt and to grasp the difference between what makes a good driver and what makes a great driver. The scout Ray mentioned above is right about that aspect: Someone like Jimmie Johnson helps his team improve his car's handling late in races, while Earnhardt has his crew chief scrambling not to make it worse.

Just 35, the Intimidator's son still has time to salvage his reputation at Hendrick. The Danica Patrick of NASCAR, he brings in too much endorsement money, especially in this uncertain economy, for both sides to even think of nixing this deal. Even if the year turns disastrous again, the team can scrap the crew and rebuild again knowing there's a contract that runs through the end of the 2012 season.

What's unfortunate, though, is how sometimes the chemistry isn't there no matter how hard you try to nurture it. Just look at Jamie McMurray. For four years, Jack Roush threw everything but the kitchen sink at their marriage, at one point even letting the driver handpick his crew. But the Roush-McMurray combo never worked, as McMurray failed to make the Chase and never won one of the sport's crown jewels. So what does McMurray do after crawling back to a former team, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, that has half the resources and engineering support? He goes out and wins the Daytona 500 in his first race post-Roush.

McMurray was asked at Homestead in November about the lessons he learned by failing with one of the sport's top teams.

"With Hendrick and Roush's [success], you start to believe they have better cars or people or equipment," he said, comparing EGR to a program twice its size. "And for me, going to Roush was somewhat of an eye opener in that there wasn't a magic button, or a magic set of shocks, or any magic [at all]. The grass is not always greener on the other side.

"You just always think that it is going to be better if you do something different, and it isn't always," he added. "Going back to Ganassi's shop and seeing the guys that you knew years ago, a lot of them still work there. To have them come up and shake your hand and tell you how glad they are you are back, there is a lot to be said for having not just the eight or 10 guys on your specific team behind you, but to have the whole organization behind you."

You wonder if in two years we're going to see Earnhardt either with Richard Childress, reuniting with DEI or elsewhere, saying the exact same thing. Remember, when Earnhardt made the move to Hendrick he wasn't allowed to take his full crew with him, devastating for a guy fiercely loyal and a team that had fought through thick and thin together. You wonder, after getting battered by the press, if the No. 88 men working the trenches have that type of "go get 'em" attitude for a driver with whom they have less of a connection.

And how many resources can the Hendrick organization funnel for a program that's so far behind everyone else?

It'll be interesting to see what transpires over the next few months. But we can all agree on one thing: Two-and-a-half years in and the stats alone leave the Earnhardt-Hendrick pairing one of the biggest busts in NASCAR history.

Isn't 2010 the last year Dale Earnhardt, Jr. can use his past win in the Sprint All-Star race to get in the 2011 All-Star Race? Assuming that he does not win in 2010 or prior to the All-Star race in 2011, won't that mean he'll have to get in through the Showdown or Fan Vote?

--Jon, Seattle

Jon, you're correct. To earn an automatic berth into the 2011 All-Star Race, you must meet one of three criteria:

-- Win a race in either 2010 or '11 (as of now, he has not)

-- Earn a Sprint Cup championship in the previous 10 years (no)

-- Win the All-Star Race in the previous 10 years (that 2000 victory no longer qualifies)

Those rules leave Earnhardt needing to transfer in via the Sprint Showdown or through the Fan Vote. It's still a long way off (there're 36 more chances to win and earn a spot), but certainly it shows you how far he's fallen from "superstar" status if he's even forced to race in to NASCAR's superstar gala.

Moving on... let's tie up a loose end from last week.

One factor in Dover's attendance being down may have been the change in date. Normally, it's two weeks later.

--Matt Byler, Bellville, PA

I got a lot of e-mails about the date proximity between Richmond and Dover being a reason for poor attendance in Delaware, with people claiming they had to choose one over the other. It's true that if fans had one race to spend on per year, they'd go to the three-quarter mile Virginia short track that's arguably fans' and drivers' favorite. But if you had two races to spend your money on would going to Dover two weeks later versus one month really make that much of a difference? I'm sorry, I just don't buy that excuse for 40,000 fans not showing up.

I will agree the schedule needs to be revamped for 2011. But the weather at Dover was marvelous all weekend. If anything, the date change could have helped for day-of fans who experienced picture-perfect conditions for a race.

Finally, we have our usual "out of left field e-mail" for the week...

In his prime, David Pearson would pass anybody today and do it clean, not like a cheap bump and run like Dale Sr.

--Terry Ruth, Kansas City, MO

I assume this is in protest to Dale Earnhardt getting the nod over Pearson for the fifth and final spot in NASCAR's inaugural Hall of Fame class. By the way, how classy was that induction ceremony? I feel like a lot of fans missed it, and that's a shame because the speeches, for the most part, were fantastic. If I had to pick watching a Fontana race or this year's Hall of Fame induction, I think I'd choose the latter.

You're a good man, supporting your driver, Terry, and I can tell you this much: he'll be first on the list for the Class of 2011. And judging by a practice stint at Darlington with Carl Edwards a couple of years ago -- where Carl said Pearson was just as sharp as ever -- there's no doubt he'd teach this current crop of drivers a thing or two on the track.

Enjoy the greatest weekend in motorsports, guys.

"He's a guy that wants to win just as bad if not more than me. I was [the] leader and used all the track in front of me. And if roles were reversed, Kyle would check up and pull down?? Lol.. OK, back to reality. Love u all.. Peace" -- @dennyhamlin on his incident with Kyle Busch in the All-Star Race.

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