In an extremely high-profile signing, Dale Earnhardt Jr. went from Dale Earnhardt Inc. to Hendrick Motorsports at the end of the 2007 season. The switch came at a time when his performance, as well as the entire organization's performance, was at an all-time low, so there are questions surrounding all those involved. As a fan favorite, Earnhardt is loved by many and also hated by many for his failure to live up to the incredible expectations put forward for him.
One of the criticisms of Earnhardt is that he is seen as a specialty driver. This is especially noted on superspeedways since he has earned seven of his 17 career wins at Daytona International Speedway or Talladega Superspeedway, even though only four regulation races are held at those tracks per year. However, it should be noted that partly due to bad luck, he has not in recent years been the guaranteed top-10 finish that he has appeared to be at those tracks. Over the last three seasons, Earnhardt has averaged a finish of 20.9 in superspeedway races, with only four of 12 races resulting in a top 10.
On the other hand, as Earnhardt has matured, he has begun performing well at short tracks. Over the last three years, Earnhardt's average finish in tracks less than one mile long has been 12.2, with one of his two wins over that period coming at a short track.
It must be noted that Earnhardt's performance as a whole has fallen in recent years. He was finally able to live up to his name in 2004, when he won six races with 16 top fives, both career highs, and an average finish of 12.1. However, his performance fell dramatically the following year, as his average finish dropped to 20.5 and he won only one race. He improved in 2006, despite managing only one win, by posting an average finish of 13.5.
For Earnhardt, 2007 was a particularly rough year, since he failed to win a race - the first time that has happened in a full season for him. DEI has been seen as a falling presence in the sport, especially since its engine department has fallen behind its competition. This is evident in Earnhardt's six engine failures in 2007, a figure that doesn't include the instances in which Earnhardt was able to finish a race with a damaged or failing engine.
One reason Earnhardt is primed for success is because of the vastly superior equipment being used by Hendrick Motorsports. Hendrick is particularly versed in the quirks of the Car of Tomorrow. Of the team's 18 wins, 11 came in COT races, of which there were only 16, showing that they are the team to beat in this new era.
Earnhardt will likely also be taught on how to properly race the COT by the undeniable experts themselves, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. While he was a younger case that needed a mentor, Casey Mears finally started living up to the potential he showed in his first four years in the sport with Chip Ganassi Racing after he joined Hendrick last season. He set career highs across the board with his first win, five top-five finishes and 10 top-10 finishes. Gordon has helped mold two-time champion Johnson into the driver he is, showing he is an ideal mentor within the sport.
Earnhardt does not need a mentor at this stage of his career, but the art of racing is found within the driver's ability to make changes. Gordon should be able to guide Earnhardt to some of those necessary changes. Team dynamics should be better at Hendrick than they were at DEI. Earnhardt should not have the same difficulties with ownership that he experienced previously. He was involved some much publicized feuds with his stepmother and the owner of DEI, Teresa Earnhardt. Junior will remain with his cousin and loyal crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., who may not be seen as the best crew chief in the sport, but he has definitely developed some chemistry with his driver. Furthermore, sharing notes with some of the smartest men in the sport should only benefit Earnhardt.
Despite losing the most popular driver in the sport, DEI may improve in 2008. This is due in large part to the emergence of Martin Truex Jr., who made the Chase for the Nextel Cup and won a race, neither of which Earnhardt did last year. Truex's 2006 campaign was not at all noteworthy, as he had only five top-five finishes with an average finish of 20.8. Meanwhile, he finished in the top five 14 times in 2007, with an average finish of 16.4. At 26 years old and with only two full seasons of Nextel Cup experience, Truex may not be the ideal mentor for developing drivers Paul Menard and Aric Almirola. However, the team may have found a solution for this problem, as they were able to sign veteran Mark Martin. Martin will race a part-time schedule during which he will also see time mentoring DEI's youth, with a noted focus on Almirola.
Earnhardt is a risk, and not one worth taking unless he comes at an affordable price. He should improve in 2008, but it is hard to tell how much improvement he will show. In leagues with no fixed rosters, he will likely be worth selecting once he shows some stability. This could even mean picking him for the Daytona 500 if he looks as sharp as he used to in the Budweiser Shootout. For such leagues, he may be worth taking a chance on anyways due to his natural inclination for superspeedway racing. In leagues with a draft, he should not be taken in the first round since such a pick should be used for stability. Earnhardt is worth taking a chance on in the second round, depending on the size of the league. Expect him to be an improved driver in 2008, but don't expect him to be a consistent winner or serious championship contender this year.
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