Posted: Thursday March 17, 2005 5:46PM; Updated: Thursday March 17, 2005 6:34PM
Dale Earnhardt Jr. currently ranks 27th in the Nextel Cup standings.
My mailman recently asked me about it. My pickup hoops buddies just the other day swore that it was biggest question in NASCAR today. Even my sports-challenged wife queried me about it earlier this week. Yes, they all had the same question: What's wrong with Dale Jr.?
My response: Probably nothing, but it's really too early to tell.
Here's what we know: Junior's 2005 season is off to a dud of a start. After finishing third at the Daytona 500, Earnhardt's last two races have been utterly forgettable. At California Speedway on Feb. 27 he suffered the almost unheard of trifecta of three flat tires and wound up 32nd. Then last week in Vegas he made an uncharacteristic mistake by driving into the back of Brian Vickers on Lap 14; the resulting crash knocked Little E out of the race and caused him to finish 42nd. All of which leaves Earnhardt, after three races, in 27th place in the points standings -- a fact that has caused a panic epidemic to break out among the red-and-white clad Earnhardt faithful, a group that probably constitutes, oh, half of all NASACAR fans.
Many scribes are attributing Earnhardt's early-season struggles to the fact that he switched crew chiefs, crews, and cars with DEI teammate Michael Waltrip in the offseason. Not me. The flat tires in Fontana were simply freak occurrences and Earnhardt's brain cramp in Vegas had absolutely nothing to do with Pete Rondeau, his new crew chief. Sure, there's no question that the entire DEI operation is having some serious problems right now -- Waltrip has yet to finish above 20th; if his pedestrian performances continues, he'll be looking for a new ride next year. But I expect Junior to turn his season around this weekend in Atlanta. In fact, he's my pick to take the checkers.
When DEI director of motor sports Richie Gilmore decided to make the crew chief change in the offseason, he understood that there would be some initial growing pains. But Gilmore felt that this was a cheap price to pay in order to get the long-term of benefit of pairing Earnhardt with Rondeau. After all, the laid-back, soft-spoken Rondeau might just be the perfect right-hand man for the highly-revved, extroverted Earnhardt. In fact, it seems that Rondeau already has had a calming effect on Little E, as evidenced by the rock-steady confidence that Earnhardt displayed after he wrecked last Sunday.