NASCAR's most popular driver has come full circle since 2004
Sunday, June 17, will be remembered by Junior Nation as they day when their boy finally came home. Much like John J. did at the end of Rambo, Dale Earnhardt Jr. came full-circle, literally, this past Sunday in the Irish Hills of Brooklyn, Michigan.
After 143 races and four years of futility, Earnhardt won the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway and moved to within four points of the championship lead currently held by 2000 rookie classmate, friend and former Busch Series rival Matt Kenseth. It wasn’t a fuel mileage fluke as his previous win at MIS in June 2008; it was, as his old man once said, “an ass-kickin’!”
Since that last win a number of changes, both within his team and with the driver himself, have taken place. Truth be known, the last seven years have been less than productive for the driver whose surname is synonymous with success — as well as the entire sport in which he competes. While he has endured many unfortunate and unfair tags (there is actually a website dedicated to his drought), this dry spell of Old Testament proportions harkens back to the 2005 season.
Many are quick to jump on the bandwagon and bash a driver when he’s down. Those new to the sport that recognize the name but wonder what all the hype is about may not know the story of Earnhardt’s eight-year dilemma. It’s a long road from where he came from to get back to racing relevance in 2012. And this is how he got here:
2004: The ’04 season saw Earnhardt winning the race that took his father 20 attempts at conquering, the Daytona 500. What was a lifetime struggle for The Intimidator, Junior knocked out in only his fifth attempt. He would go on to win six races that season, and not just on the plate tracks that were the domain of what was Dale Earnhardt, Inc. during the early- to mid-2000s.
If not for a fiery accident during practice for an ALMS race in Sonoma — the site of this weekend’s Sprint Cup race — and a slight misjudgment of a pass on Carl Edwards late in the going at Atlanta with only four races to go in the championship chase, Earnhardt may have won the Cup title. There was also the matter of a 25-point fine for an innocuous slip of the tongue during his Victory Lane interview at Talladega, a reminder of how things had evolved in the sport since his late father won his seventh championship some 10 years earlier. Surely, this would serve as the springboard to propel him into the rare air of Daytona 500 and Sprint Cup champion in 2005 …
2005: The season started with a shake-up within the Dale Jr. brain trust. The idea was to end the bickering between Tony Eury Jr. and Tony Eury Sr. – his cousin and uncle who served as principles on his No. 8 team – by bringing in new chief Pete Rondeau. It was a total team swap between the flagship No. 8 and then-driver Michael Waltrip’s No. 15 machines that saw Waltrip’s results improve slightly, but sunk Earnhardt’s into also-ran status. Competition Director Steve Hmiel was installed as interim crew chief after just 11 races, with the No. 8 team winning one race, a fuel mileage gamble at Chicagoland. The rest of the season was a disaster, with finishes in the mid-30s par for course, ending the year 19th in points, well out of the Chase.
2006: Earnhardt was reunited with cousin Eury Jr. once again, and the performance returned — although it was spotty at best. A win at Richmond in the spring was his lone triumph of the year, but he did qualify for the Chase. A second win at Talladega was snatched away on the final lap, when Brian Vickers hooked teammate Jimmie Johnson on the backstretch on the final lap, who then hooked Earnhardt, sending both spinning through the infield dirt. This also began a period of instability at DEI, with more outsiders coming in to what had been a family-oriented and operated race team with its namesake driver going into the final year of his contract.
2007: Things got off to a rocky start before the 2007 season even began. At a preseason test and media event at Daytona in January, RCR driver Kevin Harvick deemed Teresa Earnhardt a “deadbeat owner” whose absence from the track was having a negative impact on the DEI teams of which she was listed as CEO. During this time, Earnhardt admitted that his relationship with his owner/stepmother “ain’t a bed of roses,” but was quick to defend her following Harvick’s comments.
It was, however, a glimpse into the dysfunction that had become DEI, as well as Teresa Earnhardt’s refusal to cut her stepson into the company that bore his name. The 2007 season also marked NASCAR’s first in-race dabbling with the first-generation CoT, and with it came a new set of challenges to compound matters.
Eury’s out-of-the-box CoT tinkering brought about a whopping 100 point/$100,000 fine, as well as a six-race suspension following discovery of illegal wing mounts to the car at Darlington. It was a harbinger of things to come, and it would end up being the first season since his full-time arrival in the series that Earnhardt failed to win a race.
The bombshell that dropped in May found Earnhardt, his sister Kelley and Eury Jr. leaving the operation at season’s end. Earnhardt and Eury headed to Hendrick Motorsports, while Kelley moved to Earnhardt’s Nationwide team, JR Motorsports.