NASCAR: Time for Junior’s defining moment

He’s the most popular driver in America, and right now, Dale Earnhardt Jr., is the most overrated.

He is in the worst slump of his career. He moved to the best team in NASCAR and has won once — the same number of victories as David Reutimann running for a team that isn’t one of the super teams, or Brad Keselowski running for an independent, for gosh sakes.

In other words, Dale Jr. is just a guy. Because of his extraordinary popularity, he might as well be Anna Kournikova. Or Danica Patrick.

OK, Junior won two Nationwide Series titles and has 18 Sprint Cup victories which makes him considerably more accomplished than both those athletes/marketing phenomenons, but consider this: Most of Earnhardt’s accomplishments were in the first half of this decade.

Patrick became a regular in the Indy Racing League in 2005 and catapulted to crossover stardom with her fourth-place finish in the Indianapolis 500. In that same span of Patrick’s professional career, Earnhardt has won three times, in 2005, 2006 and 2008. So, Patrick has won once in a career consisting of 68 races, and Earnhardt has won three times in the last 156 races heading into Dover.

Earnhardt’s batting average in that span is .019, Patrick’s is .015. Given that Patrick is at the beginning of her career, one might even argue she’s had a better run than Junior, and isn’t that enough to make Earnhardt fans blush a Budweiser shade of red.

There are often things not seen by the masses, circumstances that inhibit this or prevent that. But right now, Junior is no better than Casey Mears, who preceded Earnhardt in the fourth car for team owner Rick Hendrick and also won one race in two seasons.

Earnhardt is clearly the No. 4 driver on the team, behind Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin.

Which means it’s time for Junior to step up.

It was time back in February when the season began. He was beginning his second season driving for Hendrick and his crew chief was still his cousin, Tony Eury, Jr. But now, Eury has been replaced by Lance McGrew.

Will it work?

It better.

A few years ago, when Darian Grubb filled in for suspended crew chief Chad Knaus, Johnson never missed a beat — and won right away.

Now, Grubb is the crew chief for Tony Stewart and Stewart is running second to Gordon in the championship. The point is that Grubb was in the pipeline waiting for his chance, and McGrew is too. This is McGrew’s chance.

If Junior was bullheaded in the car with Eury, he better take a more amenable approach to McGrew and grasp this opportunity with both arms. It is Junior’s chance to define his career. All he has to do is drive. No pressure. Do what he’s told and drive the wheels off the No. 88.

This is the opportunity for him to prove he is his father’s son. No  more familial ties to Eury who more often than not was a scapegoat when things went bad. No more feeling like he had to bring his cousin along becuase they were related. No more excuses, just like it was when he left DEI and joined the Hendrick superpower.

If  Junior blows it now, will anyone think it is McGrew’s fault? Junior Nation might.

But those in the NASCAR garage will know better.

The onus is on Earnhardt. He’s the franchise player, the “star” hailed as NASCAR royalty.

You can be sure that McGrew is the best man available in the Hendrick camp, just as Robbie Loomis was, and then Steve Letarte, who both led Gordon’s team after Ray Evernham left the Hendrick stable. Just as Darien Grubb was.

This is a critical, pivotal time in the career of Dale Earnhardt Jr.

He will succeed, or he will fail.

I suspect he will step up.

He better.

Because no one’s going to roll  over just to protect his legacy.

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