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In a lot of ways, it seems like just yesterday that Dale Earnhardt Jr. was one of NASCAR's brightest stars, combining that rare quality of near-universal fan appeal with a cocky attitude behind the wheel that kept putting him in Victory Lane.
In a lot of ways, though, it seems like a lifetime ago, but given the frequency with which Junior was winning races in the early 2000s, it seemed inevitable that the son of legend would one day hoist the Winston/Nextel/Sprint Cup, right?
Well, as he head to the quarter-mark of the 2010 season ... not so much.
Junior has 18 Sprint Cup wins, but none since 2008. He also has a Daytona 500 trophy, but that came all the way back in 2004. He won six races that season and finished fifth in the points. Junior finished a career-high third in the point standings in 2003.
Let's not forget those back-to-back Nationwide Series titles in 1998 and 1999, or the fact that Junior won his first Cup race in Texas in 2000, in just his 11th career start.
So the talent's always been there, but since 2004, Junior has been, at best, inconsistent. Since the start of the 2005 season, Junior has only won three races -- one in 2005, one in 2006 and a fuel-mileage win in 2008. He missed the Chase for the Cup in 2005, 2007 and 2009.
So what is it? Was it being separated from longtime crew chief Tony Eury Sr., with whom Junior won 15 of his 18 career races? It's possible, but Junior has yet to find the answer with current crew chief Lance McGrew, even though many figured that would happen coming into the season. Junior started 2010 off well enough, finishing second in the Daytona 500 and spending much of the early part of the season in the top 12 of the point standings, but back-to-back poor finishes at Darlington and Dover leave one wondering.
How does someone who clearly has the talent, who was once so close to becoming the toast of NASCAR, struggle so mightily? Especially when driving for a car owner who's won nine of the last 15 Cup titles in Rick Hendrick?
Personally, it's not a lack of talent. It's a lack of focus and passion. On top of being a Sprint Cup driver, Junior co-owns a Nationwide Series team, JR Motorsports, and owns a Charlotte-area bar. Life as NASCAR's Most Popular Driver has opened a lot of doors for Junior, doors that might be affecting his focus.
Perhaps he's even a little tentative; while practicing for a Grand Am race on a NASCAR off-weekend at Sonoma in 2004, Junior suffered a horrific crash where his car burst into flames. Though safety crews pulled him to safety, Junior suffered significant burns -- burns that forced Junior to get out of the car the following week at New Hampshire.
Even though Junior won six races and finished fifth in the standings that year, the numbers have declined since. Could that crash be the cause? Junior would never admit as much, but sometimes I wonder.
Junior has done a lot for the sport -- just ask Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski, both of whom got their starts because of him -- and it's not like Junior simply walked into a ride without proving himself first. But while Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin are making their mark in the sport -- and Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Mark Martin, Jeff Burton and Kasey Kahne all running well -- why isn't Junior?
We know the talent's there; we've seen it. I don't think this is a case of the No. 88 team needing another shake-up. Changing crew chiefs or swapping crew members won't help. Switching from the wing to the spoiler didn't help. Maybe it's time to look at the driver when examining what's wrong with the No. 88, and see if there's anything that can be done to improve his performance.
If that doesn't happen, Junior might just become this generation's Kyle Petty -- son of a NASCAR legend who had so much potential, but ultimately became a so-so driver who made his name in other ways.
Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that, but something tells me Junior Nation would rather see their driver living it up in Victory Lane and turning that hat backwards again.
This post originally appeared in the blog Stuck in the Pits.