For most of the 2008 season, Earnhardt was second in points, but plummeted mightily when the Chase began, finishing in the last-seed 12th position.
In 2009, Junior has continued his struggles, and sits in 22nd position on points with just five top-10s and nine finishes of 30th or worse, even after being parted from his cousin and long-time crew chief Tony Eury Jr. earlier this season in favor of Lance McGrew.
Junior may have joined Hendrick Motorsports so he had no one to blame but himself, but I don't think he alone is to blame for his struggles this season.
You see, since Hendrick Motorsports expanded to four cars in 2002, at least one of those cars has struggled every season.
I've assembled the position of the HMS cars in owner points since 2002 (if you want to see the list, see the Google Doc: http://docs.google.com/Doc?docid=0ARH_S9rdx71mZGcyc2ducjJfNzl4Mmdwbmc2&hl=en). Here's the rankings of the four cars:
- 2002: 4th, 5th, 25th, 34th
- 2003: 2nd, 4th, 10th, 26th
- 2004: 2nd, 3rd, 26th, 27th
- 2005: 5th, 11th, 17th, 20th
- 2006: 1st, 6th, 10th, 15th
- 2007: 1st, 2nd, 5th, 15th
- 2008: 1st, 7th, 12th, 21st
- 2009 (after 31 races): 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 22nd
I don't purport to know the answers - Rick Hendrick has won 8 championships as an owner and I have less than that. He has made millions of dollars in a business that typically sucks money, and I have made $15 in Google Ads. I can make a few guesses though:
My first guess is that resources are simply stretched too thin. While it may be difficult to image resources actually being thin at Hendrick Motorsports, just consider the amount that goes on in the shop every day. Is it really possible that every car built at the HMS shop - cars for the four HMS teams and the two Stewart-Haas teams - is better than everyone else's cars? I highly doubt this.
Someone has to get stuck with the bottom of the barrel. Yes, Rick Hendrick is committed to turning around the no. 88 team... but Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin, and Jeff Gordon are in the thick of a championship battle - do you think Hendrick is going to assign a car identified as bad to one of them?
In addition, HMS has more than 400 employees. The same principle with the cars holds true for the employees - are all 400 employees better than all of Roush-Fenway's employees? Than Joe Gibbs' employees? Then Richard Childress' employees? Someone at HMS will have more of the weaker crew members than the other teams, and I'm willing to bet it's not one of the teams in the title hunt.
Then you have the psychological aspect of not running well, which tends to be a self-perpetuating cycle. This is something that affects both driver and team, and both need a lot of support to break it.
I'm not trying to spread a conspiracy here, it's just business - would Rick Hendrick really sacrifice the performance of Jimmie Johnson to try to increase the performance of a car mired back in 22nd place?
Statistically speaking, at least one of the Hendrick cars has always struggled since the team expanded to four cars. This year, this car happens to be Dale Earnhardt Jr.