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“What went wrong”: Reddit Users Debate Why Dale Jr. Had A 3-Year Slump

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Cody Williams

Cody Williams is the author of BUNNY BOY and THE FIFTH LINE. He lives near Bristol, TN.
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When Dale Jr. started his career in 2000, the sky was seen as the limit. He went out very quickly and won at Texas, the site of his first win in the NASCAR Xfinity Series back in 1998. From 2001 (amidst tragedy and heartbreak) through 2004, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had multiple wins every season. Heck, 2004 was the best season of his career. He won a career-high 6-races on the season, including that year’s Daytona 500, and if just a few things had gone a little bit differently (meaning Jr. not racing with wreckless abandoned and not shooting his mouth off in inopportune times), it is very possible that he would have been the 2004 NASCAR Nextel Cup Series Champion, not Kurt Busch.

But that’s all coulda, shoulda, woulda talk. After the 2004 season, he switched teams with the No. 15 Napa team of Michael Waltrip. He started to run poorly and would only win a single race (Chicagoland) in the 2005 season.

For 2006, things seemed to be fixed. Jr. was back with Tony Eury Jr. and he was competitive again. Then, in 2007, the unthinkable would happen: he would leave the company his father built in DEI and head to the much more competitive Hendrick Motorsports, where new teammate Jimmie Johnson won the 2006 Cup Championship, would win it later that year and five more times with Dale Earnhardt Jr. as a teammate.

I remember the talk of the town when it was announced that Jr. would move to HMS: it wasn’t whether or not he would be competitive and win a championship, it was how many championships he would win. But that never happened. Instead, Dale Jr. was just about to enter a slump which would see him win only twice in a six-year span, four of those years completely winless.

Reddit user, ElectricLightningE19 begged the question: “Why did this happen?” Reddit users didn’t hesitate to respond and I, being a Jr. fan myself, have some answers of my own.

Before we jump into it, I want to thank this user for saying, yes, Dale Jr. was a good driver. Many racers can only DREAM of the career he has had. Is he the greatest of all time? No. And it’s unreasonable to compare him to his legendary father. Now, with that disclaimer out of the way, let’s talk about why Dale Jr. suffered a three-year winless slump.

YankeeBarbary is right, there isn’t one thing that contributed to Dale Jr.’s significant falloff between 2009 and 2011. His struggles were due to a plethora or reasons. I’ll spill my take on that a little bit later on. But yes, Dale Jr. was going through a lot of changes when he really needed stability the most.

Early in his career, Dale Jr. had that stability in his father. His father had a clear plan for Dale Jr. but he never lived to see it through. After Sr. passed, the whole company of DEI was in a daze, similar to what happened with Kevin Harvick and RCR. In the case of DEI, though, it lingered longer. That company was very dysfunctional from the start.

The Eury’s got into it with most people and they had NASCAR’s budding Most Popular Driver and the namesake of the company in their corner…well, mostly. The Eury’s and Dale Jr. fought a lot over the radio. They fought like family because, well, they are family. By the end of 2004, the wheels at DEI were starting to come off. The haze they were living in for so long lifted and the dysfunction began to shine through.

In a fit of immaturity due to a lack of stability, Dale Jr. asked to swap teams. Well, that didn’t work and he reunited with the Eury’s by season’s end. Tony Jr. even followed Little E. over to HMS. And, they were good. Certainly not up there with Gordon or Johnson but not far behind them either while Casey Mears had one of if not THE worst seasons of his career in the 5 car. A crew chief swap happened again, this time at the insistence of Mr. H. He heard the bickering over the radio of the 88 crew and grew concerned. Meanwhile, Dale Jr. and Tony Jr. considered it “normal”. Jr. was then paired up with Lance McGrew, HMS’s old Busch Series crew chief. Thus, the decline of Dale Jr. at HMS commenced.

Greg_Jenningz also brings up a good point in his reply: It had to be hard going from top dog at an okay team to the third best, or, in the case of the 2009 season, fourth best driver on the roster. I don’t think it’s a huge factor but it can’t be ignored. I’m sure it affected Jr.’s psyche is some ways.

A lack of stability seems to be the gist of a lot of these. I agree. Therago1456 thinks that it’s because he had a lot of bad habits at DEI and, when he went to HMS, those bad habits didn’t fly. It wasn’t until he was paired with his most successful crew chief since Tony Sr., Steve Letarte, when he was forced to stop those bad habits and began a rebuild of the team. Hmm…perhaps there’s merit in that.

Wolfdj88 believes it all had to do with poor timing. Timing can be a real pain sometimes and nobody should know it better than Dale Jr. This Reddit user reiterates many of the points made earlier so I won’t rehash them. Towards the end of his career, it was the concussions that did him in. His career ended prematurely and it didn’t help that nearly everyone (except for Chase Elliott) was really struggling at HMS in 2017.

Like I alluded to before, there were a mix of things that hurt Dale Jr. in the middle of his career. He hit the ground running in ’08 and seemed to be a real championship contender. Then, Mr. H. took away his security blanket in Tony Jr. I’m not saying that it was necessarily the wrong move but I think it was a knee-jerk reaction to how brutal they were to one another over the radio. That was the final piece of stability he had and then it was gone. He was thrust with Lance McGrew who also seemed to be just going through the motions and there was really nobody there to keep him focused on the big picture.

That was until he met his future wife, Amy, and one of the best crew chiefs he’d ever had, Steve Letarte. Together, they worked in tandem, building his confidence, holding him accountable, and, generally, being that supports system that he lost when his father died. That was how Dale Jr. was able to go on and have one of the greatest late-career resurgences in the modern era of NASCAR. Concussions did him in and, by 2017, HMS was no longer the powerhouse it once was.

What do you think, Daily Downforce readers? What do you think contributed to Dale Jr.’s 3-year slump from 2009-2011? Let us know!

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Cody Williams

Cody Williams is the author of BUNNY BOY and THE FIFTH LINE. He lives near Bristol, TN.
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