In a 2007 interview with Playboy that regenerated buzz when it was posted online before last month's Indianapolis 500, Danica Patrick answered the predictable softballs (young Danica played with dolls and cars!) as well as serious questions about her future. She said she'd consider a jump to NASCAR, saying that she would need "a seat on a team that wins races—that's most important." She echoed that sentiment before finishing third at the Brickyard, a result that while nothing to be ashamed of, left her with one win in 68 career Indy Car starts.
Monday was the first day that Danica, whose contract with Andretti Green Racing is up after this season, could talk to teams about next year. But the debate over whether she is ready for NASCAR is for another day. A more interesting question is whether NASCAR even needs her. With Dale Earnhardt Jr. already in the fold, its celebrity-driver-who-rarely-wins quota seems filled. You wouldn't know it by the legions of supporters clad in the emerald green of his number 88 Amp Energy Chevrolet at every race or by the slow-moving lines at his official merchandise haulers, but Earnhardt has made just one trip to Victory Lane in his last 111 races, including an 0-for-13 drought in 2009. After finishing 12th in Sunday's race at Dover, Del., he was 18th in the standings, in danger of missing the 12-driver Chase for the Cup.
That may not faze Junior Nation—in all likelihood he will be voted most popular driver for the seventh year in a row—but others are getting restless: his car owner, Rick Hendrick, for instance. Last Thursday, Hendrick reassigned Earnhardt's cousin and crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., breaking up a partnership that had been in place since 2005. "You've got to see some improvement, or you've got to change something," said Hendrick, who made the move after Earnhardt's 40th-place finish at Charlotte on May 25.
NASCAR drivers have many masters to please—the companies behind all those sponsor decals demand returns on their investments—but Earnhardt has more responsibilities than most. He is NASCAR's most identifiable figure, and he's struggling as the sport wrestles with declining ratings and attendance, recession-depressed sponsorship and the creeping sense that its explosive growth in popularity has plateaued. On May 26, NASCAR chairman Brian France held a town hall meeting with drivers and team owners to discuss the many issues facing the sport (page 36). Most drivers won't dare pile on Earnhardt publicly, but last Friday, Kyle Busch, rarely one to shy away from a chance to tweak a rival, said what many in the Sprint Cup garage are thinking: "You've got to make the most popular driver in the sport competitive."
Earnhardt's popularity endures for reasons beyond his famous surname. From his rookie season of 2000 through '04 he racked up 15 wins while endearing himself to fans with his good-ol'-boy roots. Junior recalls an era when drivers spent their free time cussin' and mischief-makin' and generally made it seem that winning was simply a matter of showing up and driving fast. Earnhardt stands out among his peers for his genuineness; he hurt his '04 title chances by saying "s—" on national TV, a bit of candor that got him docked 25 points.
The folks in the grandstand eat that up, but it's worth asking if a down-home driver like Earnhardt can succeed in the 21st century. Stock car garages have become the domain of engineers and scientists, and more than ever a team's success hinges on a driver's ability to relay what he's feeling in the car to his crew so technical adjustments can be made. That kind of communication has never been Junior's strength; anyone who has listened to his scanner during a race knows he lacks the preciseness of Jimmie Johnson or the wonkishness of Ryan Newman, who has an engineering degree from Purdue. There were also times when the old-school Eury seemed an odd fit among his tech-savvy colleagues. "A critical part of fixing the car is the communication between the driver and the crew chief, and I think some of the frustration may be that these guys have been together so long," said Hendrick when he announced Eury's ouster. "Junior is going to have to adapt to a new way of giving information."
Busch was more direct; he snidely noted that when Earnhardt struggles, "It's never Junior, it's always the crew chief." Busch, who was replaced at Hendrick by Earnhardt in 2008, is no favorite of fans or drivers, but he had a point: Junior the personality is still a hit, but Junior the driver is suspect. Especially because he's in an employment situation that Patrick wouldn't sneer at: Hendrick Motorsports is NASCAR's version of the Yankees, a free-spending, expectations-generating juggernaut that supplies drivers with the sport's best technology.
"At Hendrick Motorsports, you're in the best equipment and you should win races," Junior said last week. "If you don't, that really sort of makes for a hard argument that you had any business being there in the first place." Strange as it sounds, Patrick may not be the only popular driver trying to show this year that they belong in NASCAR.
Now on SI.com
Get Hot Clicks, the latest links and videos from around the Web, at SI.com/bonus