Last friday afternoon, as a dozen Nextel Cup cars blazed around Bristol Motor Speedway during the final practice before the Food City 500, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his crew chief, Pete Rondeau, stood face-to-face in the team's pit stall. Junior, his season stuck in neutral, passionately waved his arms as he told Rondeau what adjustments needed to be made to his car; Rondeau slowly nodded his head like a doctor listening to a patient describe his symptoms. A few feet away several red-and-white-clad fans--and NASCAR president Mike Helton--watched closely. Why so much interest? Because Earnhardt and Rondeau were trying to solve what for the last month has been the biggest mystery in motor sports: Why has NASCAR's most popular driver (and one of its most successful) been so, so ... lousy?
Earnhardt and Rondeau came to Bristol after three straight finishes of 24th or worse. "We're not giving up," an upbeat Junior said before Sunday's race. "When we turn this thing around, it's going to be a big deal." During the Food City he consistently ran with the leaders for the first time since his third-place finish at the Daytona 500 in mid-February. After deftly dodging several accidents, Earnhardt finished fourth, moving from 26th in the standings to 17th--still a long way from his top five finishes of 2003 and '04.
What's the problem? "There's not one thing we can point to," says Rondeau. "Our finishes haven't reflected how good the car has been. So honestly, there's not a sense of urgency." Maybe not, but the dry spell has clearly chafed at Earnhardt. Last week he said his team, Dale Earnhardt Inc., needed to "get rid of the dead weight."
But Earnhardt has already seen plenty of turnover in his garage, and that's one reason he is struggling. After last season DEI's head of motor sports, Richie Gilmore, decided to swap the crews of Earnhardt and teammate Michael Waltrip because of Earnhardt's deteriorating relationship with Tony Eury Jr., who had been his car chief for his previous five Cup seasons. (Earnhardt and Eury, 32, are also cousins.) That meant Earnhardt's new crew chief would be Rondeau, a 39-year-old mild-mannered Maine native. "It takes time to develop an understanding of each other," says Robbie Loomis, crew chief for Jeff Gordon. "Jeff and I struggled in our first season together [in 2000] with our communication, and that may be what you're seeing with Junior and Pete."
What Earnhardt hasn't had trouble communicating is that he isn't pleased with his car. DEI has been slow to adjust to NASCAR's new aerodynamics package, which includes a shorter rear spoiler and softer tires. (The new package isn't a significant factor on short tracks such as Bristol.) In the past few seasons several top DEI engineers and mechanics have been poached by other teams, and Earnhardt has recently hinted that a company-wide dearth of talent is the core reason his Chevy simply isn't as fast in 2005 as it's been in the past.
Of course, Junior's uncharacteristic driving mistakes this season haven't helped. In Las Vegas on March 13 he rammed the back of Brian Vickers on Lap 12, knocking himself out of the race and finishing 42nd. A week later in Atlanta he was twice flagged for speeding on pit road, resulting in a 24th-place finish.
Still, Earnhardt's slump hasn't diminished his star power. As of last weekend he had a huge lead over Gordon in balloting for NASCAR's Most Popular Driver, a title Earnhardt has won the past two years. That appeal isn't lost on NASCAR and NBC--which broadcasts the second half of the NASCAR season and would hate to see a Chase for the Championship that didn't include Junior. Earnhardt, Rondeau and the rest of the team are currently seven spots away from the 10th and final place with 21 races to go. If Bristol was any indication, they might finally be pointed in the right direction. -- Lars Anderson