In some respects, Dale Earnhardt Jr. looked all the part of a driver who hasn’t won a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race in his last 99 starts. In others, he did not.
Earnhardt was primed for his first big league NASCAR win in almost three years on Sunday at Martinsville Speedway. He held the lead late in the going before relinquishing it to eventual winner Kevin Harvick with 5 laps to go.
A few short laps after knocking Kyle Busch out of the top spot, Earnhardt, Sunday’s runner-up, gave up the inside line to Harvick in turn 1, opening the door for Harvick to take the lead.
Earnhardt appeared ready to attempt a crossover move heading into turn 3. He had a fender on Harvick heading into the turn, but backed off before the two cars got to the corner, enabling Harvick to slide down in front of him.
He never challenged again.
In one respect, Earnhardt looked like a driver who hasn’t won in nearly 100 starts. His late-race, rookie-like mistake to let Harvick by showed that perhaps he’s forgotten what it’s like to run up front and contend for wins. After all, his last victory not determined by pit strategy came nearly 5 years ago.
On the other hand, Earnhardt’s lack of desire to go back after the win in the closing laps made him look nothing like a driver who hasn’t won in 99 starts. He didn’t look like a driver hungry to end a drought.
Earnhardt blamed his decision not to attempt to re-take the lead from Harvick on “not wanting to be the bad guy”, but I have my own theory:
Dale Earnhardt Jr. doesn’t really want to win.
Any driver worth his salt, who has any determination to win whatsoever, would give their left leg to be in the position Earnhardt was in on Sunday. And here’s why: as a driver, it doesn’t get any easier than the position Earnhardt was in. He had the fender on Harvick. All he had to do was hold his position. If he wanted to be sure he could get by Harvick, he could have hit him too.
In this new era of “Have at it boys”, and the fact that they were racing on a short track, the latter would not have been remotely unacceptable.
With a move like that, Earnhardt could have driven off and left Harvick, and pulled into Victory Lane right then and there on Sunday. It certainly would have been a pleasant surprise for his restless nation of fans.
Instead, he left his plums at Whiskey River. And as a race fan, I feel it’s a darn shame.
I hate to draw the comparisons to his daddy, but Dale Earnhardt would never have given up a race, particularly at a short track, because he “didn’t want to be the bad guy”. Unfortunately, we’re not talking about Dale; we’re talking about Dale Jr.
In all honesty, I feel worse for his fans than anybody. Junior Nation has had to put up with a lot of crap and disappointment over the last few years. And while they may be an obnoxious bunch, they do stay loyal. And they deserved better than they got on Sunday.
I’m probably going to take a lot of flak for saying all this. But it’s ok, it needs to be said. And unlike Dale Earnhardt Jr., I don’t mind being the bad guy.
If Sunday was any indication, Dale Earnhardt Jr. doesn’t really want to win.