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Not Gr8

Earnhardt Jr. is NASCAR's most popular driver among fans and well-liked by peers, but his driving skill does not command the respect his famous father's did. That might change with next year's switch to Hendrick Motorsports, when he'll have a better car (with a new number) and superior support.

August 30, 2007|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

Dale Earnhardt Jr. clearly is the most popular NASCAR Nextel Cup driver. Pick any track on the 36-race schedule, including California Speedway, and the cheers for Earnhardt overwhelm those showered on his rivals.

But is he one of stock-car racing's most skilled drivers?

Privately, several drivers and team members in the Cup garage said Earnhardt is not among the five best drivers in terms of individual talent, though he's close. It's an opinion they shared on the condition of anonymity, in light of having to race Earnhardt every week and because he's as well-liked in the garage as in the grandstands.

But they also emphasized that Earnhardt is an example of the age-old question: Is a driver mostly as good as his car and crew?

Next year there might be a more clear-cut answer when Earnhardt, 32, leaves Dale Earnhardt Inc., the team started by his late father, and moves to the powerhouse team of Hendrick Motorsports.

This year, Earnhardt has been competitive in several races only to drop out because of engine failure and other problems, and some rivals said he would have had more victories in his career if his car and team had performed better.

Overall, since Earnhardt joined the Cup series full time in 2000, he has won 17 races, including the 2004 Daytona 500.

But he has won only two races in the last 2 1/2 years and has never captured the series championship, a feat his legendary father achieved a record seven times.

He's also in danger of missing this year's Chase for the Nextel Cup that determines the title winner, which would be the second time in three years that he has missed the playoff. The top 12 drivers in points after 26 races qualify for the 10-race Chase that begins Sept. 16 at New Hampshire International Speedway.

The 25th race of the season is Sunday's Sharp Aquos 500 at California Speedway, and the final event that will set the Chase field is Sept. 8 at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway.

Earnhardt's father was considered by many the best stock-car racer in history, and having him as a teacher gave the younger Earnhardt -- commonly called "Junior" -- an education that can't be replicated.

But Dale Jr. himself acknowledged that his full potential as a driver hasn't always been evident, either because of his own mistakes or problems with his car or team.

It's a shortfall he hopes to mostly eliminate once he's driving a Hendrick Chevrolet, which will have a new number and primary sponsor. Earnhardt's No. 8 will stay with his current team, and his current sponsor Budweiser will not move with him to Hendrick.

"I want to get [my fans] on their feet more often than I do," Earnhardt said in June when he announced the move to Hendrick. "Once we get on the racetrack and have some success, we'll be able to give them what they deserve."

Hendrick's other drivers are four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, reigning champ Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch. Busch, who was not re-signed for next year to make room for Earnhardt, is moving to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008.

Only Gordon, Johnson and Gibbs' Tony Stewart have more victories than Earnhardt in the years since Earnhardt joined the Cup circuit.

"Dale has shown he's got the talent to do the job. . . . He's got 17 victories, which is nothing to sneeze at," said Don Miller, president of Penske Racing South, whose drivers are Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman. "When he goes over to Hendrick, he will be among a bunch of really talented individuals, including the drivers, and that in itself will help him be even better than he is now."

Earnhardt said as much this year when he announced the switch to Hendrick. "It is time for me to compete on a consistent basis and contend for championships, now," he said.

"I feel like over the last year or two I've shortchanged my fans," Earnhardt said. "They've been very loyal and stuck behind me when we haven't been able to put up the results that we feel like we're capable of doing."

Asked whether his career would be judged unkindly if he never won a championship, Earnhardt said, "Some people obviously will.

"I've always said that I've done more in this sport than I've ever anticipated," he said. "I will cherish a championship on my mantel when it's all said and done. I think I can live without it, obviously. I really do want it."

Regardless of his record, no one should underestimate Earnhardt as a skilled, tough and determined competitor, some drivers said.

"He's a really good driver, and I think he knows it and that's why he wants to go to Hendrick," said Kasey Kahne, driver of the No. 9 Dodge for Gillett Evernham Motorsports. "Whether it's the people working there or whatever it may be, they get it done. He's a good enough driver, and he's going to be one of those guys winning races."

Veteran Kyle Petty, who drives the No. 45 Dodge, agreed. "All of us have to have the right equipment," he said. "I could take Jeff Gordon and put him in about two-thirds of these cars and he wouldn't win races.

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