10/19/09 11:41PM Dale Jr, Earnhardt, Hendrick Motorsports, Jimmie Johnson, NASCAR, Rick Hendrick

Junior's struggles mount as life now imitates art
By Duane Cross, NASCAR.COM October 19, 2009 08:46 PM EDT

Art does imitate life. That doesn't mean that NASCAR's most popular driver buys into imitation being the sincerest form of flattery. Cue Days of Thunder ...

Dale Earnhardt Jr. admits he's at the end of his rope. His career is as off course as Lindsay Lohan's. Thing is, he has recognized this and has accepted the fact changes need to be made, which is more than can be said for his beloved Redskins.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is looking to car owner Rick Hendrick to make a decision regarding the No. 88 team."I've been riding it out. There comes a point though when you don't want to ride it out anymore," Earnhardt said Friday at Charlotte. "You just have had enough, you know? It's been a long year. I really don't want the year to be over with, because I like going to the race track every week and racing. But the last several ... well, all year, it's been so ... low.

"The highs have been not very high and the lows have been terribly low. It's hard to want to get back up and try again the next week when you take such a beating. But I don't know what else to do."

The impetus is now on Rick Hendrick, who made the decision in 2007 to bring Junior into the HMS fold. Hendrick seemingly has the golden touch in regards to teaming crew chiefs and drivers -- Ray Evernham and Jeff Gordon, Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson -- but Earnhardt's career now hangs in the balance. After Tony Eury Jr. and Lance McGrew, maybe a third crew chief will prove to be the charm.

No matter who the crew chief is, he's got his work cut out for him. In Earnhardt's words, "Whoever I work with needs to be a dictator." Hendrick should spare no expense when it comes to identifying that person, considering the money invested in Earnhardt. (Not to mention the revenue stream from Junior merchandise.)

Maybe in December 2006 Teresa Earnhardt was, in fact, ahead of the curve: "Right now the ball's in his court to decide on whether he wants to be a NASCAR driver or whether he wants to be a public personality."

When Earnhardt's separation from DEI was imminent in 2007, longtime race promoter and former Lowe's Motor Speedway president Humpy Wheeler noted, "He's got three years. You just don't start winning prolifically after you're 36 years old or so." The success of Mark Martin aside, the Sprint Cup Series is a young man's game. The grueling schedule, the marketing / sponsorship aspect for the drivers, it's the epitome of what-have-you-done-lately.

In Earnhardt's case, that's not much -- which is why it is imperative for Hendrick to make the right call during the offseason, if not sooner.

Two years into the gig with Hendrick, Earnhardt has one victory, 12 top-five finishes and 21 top-10s in 67 races. He had better season totals in 2003 (2-13-21). Obviously something ain't right. He didn't get dumber behind the wheel. He doesn't have worse equipment.

Earnhardt has the talent and the marketability to be both a NASCAR driver and a public personality, but he cannot do it alone. However, time and the in-house competition at Hendrick -- not to mention the series as a whole (he's 22nd in points, after all) -- is not on his side. If the winds of change are to blow through the No. 88 garage, it needs to happen now.

"There are a lot of smart people around here," Earnhardt said. "I'm just waiting on somebody to make the call. Put the damn team together and say, 'This is what you've got, and this is what you're going to do next year.' I'm just kind of waiting on that to happen."

Mr. H, channel your inner Tim Daland. Harry Hogge (and a real-life Cole Trickle) awaits your call. Not to mention Junior Nation ...