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Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. Ever Be Good Again? A Comparison to Kyle Petty

Posted by chadmusselman on October 1, 2009

Dale Jr.Remember the first few years of Dale Earnhardt Junior’s career when he had so much promise and potential? Everyone thought he could be just like his daddy and take over the family name and keep the winning tradition alive. In 2000, his first full season in the Sprint Cup Series, he had 2 wins. He followed that up in 2001 with 3 wins and an 8th place finish in the point standings, which was very impressive. After that he was considered a perennial contender for the Cup, and rightfully so. Standings wise he had his best year in 2003 finishing in 3rd place, and win wise 2004 was his best year collecting 6 wins and finishing 6th in the point standings. It seems to have gone down-hill since then.

There’s one other son of a legend that at one time had great promise and potential although he seemed to flame out and become irrelevant on the race track. In the eighties Kyle Petty had to try and follow in his father, The King’s, footsteps. He did have some success, but never became a top-tier driver. Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. have the same fate?

First let’s look at some numbers for Kyle Petty and Dale Earnhardt Jr. to see how their careers are similar so far, and then we can take a look at my theory for Junior’s drop off in productivity.

Below is a table of stats for Kyle Petty and Dale Earnhardt Jr. broken down by their first full 5 seasons in Sprint Cup, and their 6th thru 10th seasons in the Sprint Cup Series. (2009 is the tenth full season for Dale Jr. so his stats will only include the first 28 races.)


As you can see in their first 5 seasons Dale outperformed Kyle pretty easily, collecting a lot more wins, top fives and top tens, but more importantly having a better average start and finish position for the races, and better standing in the points at the end of the season.

In his 6th thru 10th seasons Dale Jr. had his numbers drop off dramatically. His points position is 5.5 spots worse, he has 12 fewer wins, not as many top fives and top tens, is starting the races 5 spots worse, and finishing 2 spots worse than he did in his first full 5 seasons.

This is a reverse of what Kyle Petty had done in his 6th thru 10th seasons. He did have some drop off in his average points position, but not as dramatic as Jr, and Kyle actually did better with average start and finishing position in the races, and had more wins than his first 5 seasons.

So, what does this mean for Junior? Well if Kyle is any indicator, Dale better hope next year is better or he could fall into irrelevance pretty soon. You can see Kyle’s numbers after his 10th full season (18 more seasons) and they’re not pretty. His average points position is pathetic, average finishing position for a race wasn’t even in the top 20, and after his 15th full season he never won another race. That’s 13 seasons without a win to end your career. Ouch!

Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. be that bad? I don’t know if he’d let it get to that. I think he’d retire before it gets embarrassing, but with the way this season has gone, it’s getting embarrassing quick.

So, why has Dale’s performance been so bad the past five seasons? Easy; Michael Waltrip. Michael was the perfect 2nd fiddle to Dale Earnhardt Jr. at DEI. He was there to help Dale out on the track and push him along at Talladega and Daytona. He was there to talk to Dale in the garage and build him up and give him confidence. He was the perfect teammate for Dale Earnhardt Jr. After the 2005 season Michael Waltrip left DEI to form his own team and Dale hasn’t been the same since.

Yes, there was the much publicized battle with Teresa Earnhardt to see who would have control over DEI which had to be a distraction for him, constantly being asked about the situation, but he still grossly underperformed. In 2008 when he started racing for Rick Hendrick everyone though that he’d be back to his old form. He got the best equipment and personnel to help him win. Well, we’re still waiting. One win in 64 races with Hendrick isn’t getting it done.

So why is he doing do poorly with Hendrick with all the latest technology and best equipment? No Michael Waltrip to push him. Jeff, Jimmie, and Mark are all top-tier drivers that are worried about their own championship runs and winning races. They’re not worried about building Jr. up and making him happy. He needs to be able to do that himself. They are not there to push him around the track like Michael did, they’re going to pass him and try to get the win themselves. Teammates in the garage, but on the track it’s every man for himself.

Can Jr. succeed again? Yes. He owns a team in the Nationwide series. If he can get that team running in the Sprint Cup Series and make it a two car team he’ll have a chance. He would need to be the “A” driver and have a young kid or 2nd tier veteran as his teammate that can help push him on the track and build him up in the garage. It seems that is the only kind of environment that Dale Earnhardt Jr. will thrive in.

What do you think?

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One Response to “Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. Ever Be Good Again? A Comparison to Kyle Petty”

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