To say Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn't have the best of Daytona 500s on Sunday would probably be the understatement of the young 2009 NASCAR season.
NASCAR's most popular driver, in his second year for arguably the Sprint Cup Series' most powerful team in Hendrick Motorsports, is under immense pressure -- because of his name and popularity -- to deliver that elusive first series championship, particularly after 2008 started off with such promise, only to thud to a halt once the Chase started.
Two pit road mishaps and triggering the big 10-car pileup on lap 124 were Junior's claim to fame (or infamy) on Sunday, leaving Brian Vickers, Kyle Busch and even Jeff Burton weighing in and criticizing Earnhardt.
Leading up to this year's Daytona 500, Earnhardt talked a lot about pressure, saying he realized this was the year he had to put up or shut up. He seemed to have a chip on his shoulder, showing a fire and temper I don't recall ever seeing from him. He blasted Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage for insinuating drivers had to do a better job of marketing races, then made no bones about how he had to perform.
Then Sunday happened.
Junior took the lead on lap 53, and though he only led one lap, he was as strong as he typically is at Daytona. Then he came onto pit road under caution ... only to miss his stall entirely, forcing him to run all the way around the track again before pitting and losing all of his track position.
Junior admitted he wasn't thinking in relation to that error, saying, "I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to get up in there and try to lead a lap and all that and I just wasn't thinking good."
But he was still on the lead lap, eventually making his way back up into the top 5 as the race crept toward the halfway mark and rain became a real threat. It was the second pit road mistake, and the ensuing one-lap penalty, that officially ruined his day.
NASCAR rules only permit the right rear tire to be outside the pit box while being serviced; Junior’s right front was on the line as the crew changed his tires. Because the No. 88 team didn’t push the car all the way into the box before starting service, Earnhardt was assessed a one-lap penalty.
Argue the harshness of the penalty if you want – and Junior did – but that’s the way NASCAR does things. You break a rule, you pay the price.
A lap down and fighting Vickers to get the free pass should the caution have come out, Junior went low on the backstretch to pass. Vickers went low to block, sending Junior behind the out-of-bounds yellow line. Trying to merge back into the line of traffic, Junior clipped the left rear of Vickers’ car, sending him spinning back into the field and taking out another nine cars – including Busch, who had led 88 laps at that point.
Intent can be argued – I happen to think Junior didn’t intentionally dump Vickers, because that’s just not his style – but Earnhardt does deserve some blame. Vickers does too, but NASCAR’s most popular driver isn’t immune from it, even if he was adamant and borderline angry when talking to reporters after the race.
"I got ran into and sent below the line. What the hell? I don't want to go down there, I didn't aim to go down there, and I got sent down there. What the hell am I supposed to do?" he quipped. "Then what am I supposed to do? Stay down there? No. I got to get back up on the race track.
"If he wasn't so damn reckless, we would have never had that problem, that would never happen. As far as I am concerned, it is all his responsibility."
The wreck wouldn’t have been as a big a deal had Vickers not collected anyone else when he spun. If Busch, the dominant car of the day, hadn’t been collected, everyone might’ve shrugged it off as a racing incident. But because of those two factors, and the fact that Dale Earnhardt Jr. arguably started the wreck, this became the talk of the Daytona 500, more so than Matt Kenseth actually winning the race.
But back to the original point: is Earnhardt starting to feel the pressure? I think so; you can see him pressing on the race track, doing things with his car he doesn’t normally do. In racing back to the front after the first pit road mistake, Junior bobbed and weaved his car erratically, taking chances before the halfway point most guys not named Kyle Busch wouldn’t even consider.
He needed to get back up to the front. He needed to lead laps. He needed to win the race.
New teammate Mark Martin said before the season that Earnhardt had some of the strongest and broadest shoulders he’d ever seen, because of all the hype and expectations he has to handle on a weekly basis. But Earnhardt is only human, and the things he’s done and said so far this season tell me the pressure’s starting to eat at him.
He knows he has to perform, and he knows he has to do it now. Is the pressure unfair? Some of it; people expect Dale Earnhardt Jr. to be just like Dale Earnhardt, even when anyone with half a brain knows that’s not the case. I always felt for Kyle Petty in that regard, having to live up to his legendary father, and now Junior’s starting to feel some of that.
Junior’s a good driver – 18 career Cup wins, the 2004 Daytona 500, two Nationwide Series championships – but his name ensures those numbers, which I’m guessing guys like Paul Menard and Travis Kvapil would kill for, will never be good enough.
One Cup title wouldn’t even be enough – everyone would simply ask, “Okay, when are you gonna win the next one?”
Rick Hendrick talked of Martin being a mentor of sorts for Junior when the 50-year-old signed on to drive the No. 5 car. I think that mentoring needs to start now, in earnest, because the more Junior presses, the more we’re going to see performances like Sunday’s.
Which will make the scrutiny and pressure even worse. Dale Earnhardt Jr. might be NASCAR’s poster boy, but he’s his own man, and he’s only human.