by Ryan Isley
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a piece for More Than a Fan about Danica Patrick and her undeserved 2012 seat in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. After I wrote that, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was given a controversial five-year contract extension from Hendrick Motorsports to continue as the driver of the No. 88 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Some thought that I was ignoring Earnhardt, Jr.’s extension.
Wrong. Even the most diehard of Earnhardt, Jr. supporters would have to look at this deal in disbelief.
Some people even questioned the decision by Hendrick Motorsports to bring Earnhardt, Jr. into the fold in 2008. The decision was announced in May of 2007 when Earnhardt, Jr. (then driving for Dale Earnhardt, Inc.) was in the midst of a season that would see him finish 16th in points. The move did seem to make sense at that point for Hendrick, however, as not only was Earnhardt, Jr. the most popular driver in NASCAR but he had also finished in the top-5 in points in three of the previous four seasons. Adding him to a stable that included four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon and defending NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson (who has added four more titles since) seemed like a no-brainer.
Things have not turned out exactly like Rick Hendrick could have imagined.
In 133 NASCAR Sprint Cup races for Hendrick Motorsports since joining the team prior to the 2008 NASCAR season, Earnhardt, Jr. has been able to do a victory lap only once. He made the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship just one time in his first three seasons for Hendrick (he can clinch a spot in the Chase for this season with a top-20 finish this weekend at Richmond).
Earnhardt, Jr. had his best season for Hendrick in that 2008 campaign, when he picked up his only win for the team and had 16 top-10 finishes, including 10 inside the top-5. In the 2+ years following, Earnhardt, Jr. has just 22 top-10 finishes and only eight inside the top-5. After finishing 12th in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings in 2008, Earnhardt, Jr. finished outside the top-20 in 2009 and 2010.
Obviously Earnhardt, Jr. is getting this deal for the same reason Danca got hers – he makes money for the team and for NASCAR. If you do not know how popular Earnhardt, Jr. is with NASCAR fans, you have not been paying attention. All you have to do is watch a race on television and listen to the crowd every time the No. 88 takes the lead. Or you can go to a race and look at the merchandise trailers. Even if they were not marked, you would have no problem distinguishing which one belongs to Earnhardt, Jr. – it is the one with the line that seems to go on forever.
As if that is not enough, Earnhardt, Jr. has won Most Popular Driver of the Year award eight consecutive years, an award voted on by NASCAR fans.
When Earnhardt, Jr. left Dale Earnhardt, Inc. to race for Hendrick, it also meant a new number and new sponsors. Earnhardt, Jr. was the face of Budweiser in his No. 8 Chevrolet but now would drive the No. 88 Chevrolet sponsored mainly by Amp and the National Guard. Once the shift was made, stores could not keep the new merchandise in stock because it sold so quickly and there were items on NASCAR.com that had to be back-ordered.
Popularity seems to be the name of the game in NASCAR these days and there was no way that Hendrick Motorsports was going to let Earnhardt, Jr. get away. As I wrote in the earlier piece about Danica, Earnhardt, Jr. did win back-to-back championships in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. However, those were a long time ago and have no bearing on this deal. The only factor that led to Earnhardt, Jr. getting an extension was the amount of money he could pull in for Hendrick and NASCAR.
This deal may have made sense from an on-track performance standpoint earlier this season, when he finished 6th in the 5-Hour Energy 500 and was 3rd in the points standings. That was Earnhardt, Jr.’s 11th finish in the top-12 in the season’s first 14 races. His average finishing position in those first 15 races was 10th, despite a 24th-place finish in the Daytona 500. Since that point, he has an average finishing position of 19.5 with only one finish in the top-12.
With the Danica deal and the Earnhardt, Jr. extension, the message is clear – as long as you can sell tickets and merchandise, you will have a ride.
Winning has become optional.