For Dale Earnhardt Jr., the 2009 season was one of the most frustrating and trying times of his ten-year career. With only two top 5s and five top 10s, the third generation racer was forced to face harsh criticism from the media, fellow competitors and even his loyal fans. The downward spiral seemed to begin right from the start of the season during the Daytona 500.
One of the stronger cars in Daytona, Earnhardt was penalized for pitting outside his box and was held one lap by NASCAR. With rains approaching and threatening to shorten the event, Junior aggressively went to work trying to get his lap back and put himself into contention. In doing so, Earnhardt triggered a massive wreck on the backstretch that took out a number of contenders as he slipped through without so much as a dent.
The criticism rained on the sport’s most popular driver and from then on the season was awash. Throughout the year Earnhardt’s commitment was called into question and so was his ability to compete for wins. The frustration was visible on the 34-year-old’s face and was clear through his comments to the media.
This year, Earnhardt Jr. is recharged and ready to turn his luck around, starting at Daytona. This year, however, Earnhardt and crew chief Lance McGrew are focused on completing races and making the most out of each race to score the most points in the end – easier said than done.
"I would really like to put together complete races where we're competitive throughout the event and we're able to get finishes that are good finishes, and those are top-fives and wins," said Earnhardt Jr. "Wins are what everybody's out there racing for, but if we could put together complete races without mistakes, without me making mistakes, without issues and problems arising, that's definitely going to signal some progress."
One key to completing that goal will be the communication and chemistry Earnhardt has with his Lance McGrew-led team. Last year the team underwent a change atop the pit box when team owner Rick Hendrick tapped McGrew to take over for Earnhardt’s cousin Tony Eury Jr. Now entering their first full year together, their relationship is still developing.
"I've been with some great teams and had some good wins and great success at certain periods of time in my career, but it's hard for me to really be able to point out what great chemistry is just yet," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I get along great with Lance and we have a lot of fun. I think that's important, that we enjoy being around each other. We can kind of build on that friendship and learn from each at the race track and our work ethic and our work habits. All that stuff should eventually work itself out.”
This year, Hendrick is focused on getting Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 88 team to the level of the competition his other three teams enjoy (Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon swept the top-three spots in the 2009 series standings.) Hendrick has moved Martin’s race engineer to the No. 88 team and the two teams that share shop space are expected to work more closely this season.
"I want to compete and match the progress and success that the rest of the company's having," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I want to be on that level."
Facing a 57-race winless streak, the key to success in 2010 will be open communication, complete races and confidence behind the steering wheel. With a fresh start ahead of them, the first few weeks of the season will dictate whether the changes made behind the scenes were enough.
"I feel like that we're definitely going in the correct direction which is good compared to the direction we were going last year."
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