Dale Earnhardt Jr. reminds me of Mike Tyson. Both have larger-than-life personas. Both have been successful. But Tyson never achieved his full potential (greatest heavyweight not named Ali) and it’s beginning to look like Dale Jr. won’t get there either. That reality is our No. 7 story of 2009.

What Happened?
Dale Earnhardt Jr. stunk, and he did so with the best equipment out there. In his second season with Hendrick Motorsports, Earnhardt Jr. had as many DNFs (five) as top 10s. Crew chief Tony Eury Jr. was the whipping boy and eventually took the fall for his cousin’s struggles, being demoted mid-season. But as Dale Watermill eloquently showed us, new boss Lance McGrew didn’t help his driver in the standings. Dale Jr. actually did worse, dipping in points in the middle and final thirds of the season.

In the end, Dale Jr. had an average finish of 23.2. He was 25th in points and led just 56 laps over the final 24 races of the season. To add another stomach punch to the equation, his three teammates finished in the top three of the standings. Somewhere Glass Joe is flinching.

Where are we now?

McGrew will be crew chief in 2009. Dale Jr. remains NASCAR’s most popular driver. He’s also getting dap for getting Danica Patrick in NASCAR.  It’s a temporary pass that helps people forget the losing streak of 57.

Why should you care?

It’s rare for a sport’s most popular name to not produce results. Derek Jeter doesn’t hit .220. Tiger Woods doesn’t miss cuts. Peyton Manning doesn’t throw ten interceptions. Dale Earnhardt Jr. does go 57 races without a win. And even though he’s a non-factor on the track, Earnhardt Jr. is the one invited to present at the Country Music Awards and gets more media attention than any other driver. Mike Tyson was the same way at the end of his career. People watched Tyson fight, not a fight involving Mike Tyson. Now that he’s gone, can you name me five heavyweights in the sport? No, Little Mac doesn’t count.

Sure, NASCAR doesn’t have all of its eggs in the Dale Jr. basket. But he  moves the meter enough that when he’s not moving, NASCAR’s numbers slide. The sport has to grow other stars, especially when its brightest one is dimming before our eyes.

Related links:

Top story No. 8: Tony Stewart has a Whopper of a season
Top story No. 9: RCR gets loopy
Top story No. 10: The return of Mark Martin
Top story No. 11: Kyle Busch sucks, rocks
Top story No. 12: NASCAR Hall of Fame
Top story No. 13: David Poole’s death
Top story No. 14: Double-file restarts
Top story No. 15: As the Danica turns