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For Dale Earnhardt Jr., results fall farther behind reputation

DAYTONA BEACH — For quite some time, he has had trouble running down Jimmie Johnson.

He has been behind the older Busch brother for a while, and now the younger one has passed him too. Even Greg Biffle has been the more accomplished driver in recent seasons.

So, yes, you could say Dale Earnhardt Jr. is struggling to keep pace. Which would be fine if it was just a driver here or a driver there who had gotten the better of Junior. Something like that could be explained. It could be justified.

No, what really hurts is Earnhardt's performance has fallen hopelessly behind his reputation.

The driver with the big salary, the magazine covers, the endorsements and the adulation of more fans than any NASCAR competitor in America the past half-dozen years is losing the race between substance and style.

Never has it seemed more noticeable than a gloomy Daytona 500 that was memorable for all the wrong reasons Sunday.

Handed one of the strongest cars on the track, Junior drove it straight to the back of the field with two pit road mistakes, then managed to skewer the race's outcome with a questionable move that triggered a nine-car accident.

"It's unfortunate that a guy who messed up his whole day on pit road and screwed up — that he had to make our day worse," said Kyle Busch, who led 88 laps before being caught up in the accident. "It wasn't our problem that he was a lap down and fighting with another lapped car."

Okay, so mistakes happen. And this one could just as easily have been the fault of Brian Vickers, who appeared a mite aggressive in trying to block Earnhardt low.

But here's the thing:

The world always seems eager to provide excuses for Earnhardt's shortcomings. It is the fault of the engine builder. It is the fault of his previous owner. It is the fault of fate and circumstances.

To his credit, Earnhardt has typically owned up to his shortcomings. While his fans blame others, Junior has always been willing to shoulder a good portion of the pressure and his fair share of the responsibility.

Until Sunday.

When he drove past his crew on pit road early in the race, he blamed it on too many teams using the same color flag. Yet none of the other drivers had this trouble. When he was penalized a lap for being an inch or two outside the box on another pit stop, he complained the penalty was more severe than the crime. Yet none of the other drivers seemed to have trouble parking their cars.

Right after the second infraction, he was frantically trying to get past all of the other lapped cars so he could get a free pass back to the lead lap on the next caution. He made a move to go around Vickers, but got blocked below the track line. Instead of easing back, he moved quickly back over the line and hit Vickers from behind.

"I got ran into, and sent below the line. What the hell? I don't want to go down there. I didn't aim to go down there. I got sent down there," Earnhardt said. "What the hell am I supposed to do? Stay down there? No. I've got to get back up on the racetrack. It was unfortunate, man. If he wasn't so damn reckless, we would have never had that problem.

"As far as I am concerned, it is all his responsibility."

Earnhardt's responsibility in this accident can be debated.

His responsibility for his performance in recent years cannot.

Truth is, he has won three Sprint Cup races in four years when a dozen other drivers have more victories. Truth is, he has one top-10 finish in Cup standings in four years. Truth is, he is less successful today than he was as a young driver.

Trust me, this is not an attack on Junior. The guy is not a fraud. He's not a phony. People like him because he seems to be a genuinely good guy. And his overall resume is still better than most in NASCAR. But if you're going to accept the $10 million salary and the tens of millions in endorsements, you also have to accept the inevitable criticism that you are underperforming.

Not that he doesn't have plenty of time to turn it around. He is only 34, and just beginning his second season with Hendrick Motorsports. It's entirely possible he will turn this into his best season since his six wins in 2004.

Until then, he is better off accepting the darts and avoiding the excuses.

At some point, it is not enough to be a likable guy. It is not enough to be more hip than some, or better-looking than others. It is not enough to have NASCAR's most valuable birth certificate.

At some point, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has to perform.

For Dale Earnhardt Jr., results fall farther behind reputation 02/15/09 [Last modified: Monday, February 16, 2009 7:15am]
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