In a 2007interview with Playboy that regenerated buzz when it was posted online beforelast month's Indianapolis 500, Danica Patrick answered the predictablesoftballs (young Danica played with dolls and cars!) as well as seriousquestions about her future. She said she'd consider a jump to NASCAR, sayingthat she would need "a seat on a team that wins races—that's mostimportant." She echoed that sentiment before finishing third at theBrickyard, a result that while nothing to be ashamed of, left her with one winin 68 career Indy Car starts.
Monday was thefirst day that Danica, whose contract with Andretti Green Racing is up afterthis season, could talk to teams about next year. But the debate over whethershe is ready for NASCAR is for another day. A more interesting question iswhether NASCAR even needs her. With Dale Earnhardt Jr. already in the fold, itscelebrity-driver-who-rarely-wins quota seems filled. You wouldn't know it bythe legions of supporters clad in the emerald green of his number 88 Amp EnergyChevrolet at every race or by the slow-moving lines at his official merchandisehaulers, but Earnhardt has made just one trip to Victory Lane in his last 111races, including an 0-for-13 drought in 2009. After finishing 12th in Sunday'srace at Dover, Del., he was 18th in the standings, in danger of missing the12-driver Chase for the Cup.
That may not fazeJunior Nation—in all likelihood he will be voted most popular driver for theseventh year in a row—but others are getting restless: his car owner, RickHendrick, for instance. Last Thursday, Hendrick reassigned Earnhardt's cousinand crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., breaking up a partnership that had been in placesince 2005. "You've got to see some improvement, or you've got to changesomething," said Hendrick, who made the move after Earnhardt's 40th-placefinish at Charlotte on May 25.
NASCAR drivershave many masters to please—the companies behind all those sponsor decalsdemand returns on their investments—but Earnhardt has more responsibilitiesthan most. He is NASCAR's most identifiable figure, and he's struggling as thesport wrestles with declining ratings and attendance, recession-depressedsponsorship and the creeping sense that its explosive growth in popularity hasplateaued. On May 26, NASCAR chairman Brian France held a town hall meetingwith drivers and team owners to discuss the many issues facing the sport (page36). Most drivers won't dare pile on Earnhardt publicly, but last Friday, KyleBusch, rarely one to shy away from a chance to tweak a rival, said what many inthe Sprint Cup garage are thinking: "You've got to make the most populardriver in the sport competitive."
Earnhardt'spopularity endures for reasons beyond his famous surname. From his rookieseason of 2000 through '04 he racked up 15 wins while endearing himself to fanswith his good-ol'-boy roots. Junior recalls an era when drivers spent theirfree time cussin' and mischief-makin' and generally made it seem that winningwas simply a matter of showing up and driving fast. Earnhardt stands out amonghis peers for his genuineness; he hurt his '04 title chances by saying"s—" on national TV, a bit of candor that got him docked 25 points.
The folks in thegrandstand eat that up, but it's worth asking if a down-home driver likeEarnhardt can succeed in the 21st century. Stock car garages have become thedomain of engineers and scientists, and more than ever a team's success hingeson a driver's ability to relay what he's feeling in the car to his crew sotechnical adjustments can be made. That kind of communication has never beenJunior's strength; anyone who has listened to his scanner during a race knowshe lacks the preciseness of Jimmie Johnson or the wonkishness of Ryan Newman,who has an engineering degree from Purdue. There were also times when theold-school Eury seemed an odd fit among his tech-savvy colleagues. "Acritical part of fixing the car is the communication between the driver and thecrew chief, and I think some of the frustration may be that these guys havebeen together so long," said Hendrick when he announced Eury's ouster."Junior is going to have to adapt to a new way of givinginformation."
Busch was moredirect; he snidely noted that when Earnhardt struggles, "It's never Junior,it's always the crew chief." Busch, who was replaced at Hendrick byEarnhardt in 2008, is no favorite of fans or drivers, but he had a point:Junior the personality is still a hit, but Junior the driver is suspect.Especially because he's in an employment situation that Patrick wouldn't sneerat: Hendrick Motorsports is NASCAR's version of the Yankees, a free-spending,expectations-generating juggernaut that supplies drivers with the sport's besttechnology.
"At HendrickMotorsports, you're in the best equipment and you should win races," Juniorsaid last week. "If you don't, that really sort of makes for a hardargument that you had any business being there in the first place." Strangeas it sounds, Patrick may not be the only popular driver trying to show thisyear that they belong in NASCAR.
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Dale and Danica have much in common: CELEBRITY STATUSand no wins lately.
ILLUSTRATION BY DARROW