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Earnhardt at a critical crossroads

2/10/2010 - NASCAR

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- No more excuses. No more reasons to fail. No more waiting to work it out.

This is it for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

NASCAR's most popular driver, the face of the sport for a decade, is out of time.

It's now or never. This season has to be a good one.

He doesn't see it that way, of course. The urgency of it escapes him.

"I've had a pretty good rough patch, but I'm 35 years old," Earnhardt said last week on media day. "If I wanted to, I could probably race another 15 years. I've probably got a pretty good chance of putting together another season like I had in 2004 sometime in that 15-year span."

The 2004 season seems so long ago. Earnhardt won a career-best six races and finished fifth in the first year of the Chase format. In the five seasons since 2004, Earnhardt has three victories and two Chase appearances, finishing in the top 10 only once (2006).

So much has changed. He has competed the past two years for Hendrick Motorsports, the best organization in NASCAR, but Earnhardt had just one victory in those two seasons. Last year's finish was the worst of his career; he was 25th in the standings while his teammates finished 1-2-3.

So now it has come to this: An icon of the sport has reached a crossroads.

Either Earnhardt returns to contending status and regains his credibility among the NASCAR elite or he falls into a racing purgatory of disappointment and unmet expectations.

"For his sake and for Hendrick's sake, things have to get better than they were last year," Hendrick teammate Mark Martin said. "Dale Jr. is due for some good days."

Martin is a realist, some might say a bit of a pessimist. He doesn't say things are good if he doesn't believe it.

He also knows a thing or two about drivers. Long before most people ever heard of Joey Logano, Martin said that Logano was the most talented young racer he had ever seen. He said Logano was headed to Sprint Cup. Logano was barely 15 at the time.

So when Martin says something about a driver, people tend to listen. And he has a lot to say about Earnhardt now.

"This is Junior's year," Martin said matter-of-factly. "I don't know exactly how to say this. I was going to say revenge. But it's his year to take out frustrations and pound the results.

"Junior, his heart really, really is in it. He's incredibly driven to have that success, and his team is behind him. I think you'll see a spectacular year for him."

Martin is privy to some inside information that helps form his opinion. He has seen the changes in the Hendrick building where his cars and Earnhardt's cars are built.

The 5/88 shop is trying to become more like the 24/48 shop that houses the teams for Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, which work as one unit.

Lance McGrew, Earnhardt's crew chief, and Alan Gustafson, Martin's crew chief, have developed a plan to do the same.

"It's a tough thing to do," Gustafson said last week. "It sounds simple, but it's very complex to get two guys [McGrew and Gustafson] who are typically very egotistical to get along real well and cooperate for one direction in the shop. And we have 85 people in this shop who have to work together."

That didn't happen in 2009. The 5/88 shop had a lot of instability.

Martin and Gustafson were starting their first year together. Earnhardt's team changed crew chiefs in the middle of the season when McGrew replaced Tony Eury Jr. But McGrew's status was uncertain until the end of the year.

Martin was competing for the title, which sent all the focus to the No. 5 team. Working with the 88 team didn't happen much.

HMS owner Rick Hendrick was determined to see that change this year.

"Lance and Alan sat down together and came up with a plan," Hendrick said. "They made a commitment to work as one unit, and I think Junior sees it."

Yes, he does.

"It really wasn't that long ago when we didn't know what was going to happen with Lance," Earnhardt said. "Everybody in the shop was unsure about the future. Now we've changed the entire culture.

"Alan and Lance have really tried to work very close together. It's cool to see them mesh as well as they have. And it helps my confidence that we'll be where we need to be. It's been a great example for everyone in the shop."

For his sake and for Hendrick's sake, things have to get better than they were last year. Dale Jr. is due for some good days.

-- Mark Martin

Hendrick also has noticed the difference. No one feels worse about Earnhardt's struggles than Hendrick.

"We feel we let him down last year," Hendrick said last week. "We tried, but we just were not getting it done. I told Dale when he came over here that I was going to give him the best stuff I could. I tried, but I think we can do better, and we have."

Johnson says buying into the dual-team/one-unit concept has helped him win four consecutive titles, although one could argue it hasn't helped Gordon.

But Johnson believes the concept is the answer for Earnhardt.

"He can't do it on his own," Johnson said last week about Earnhardt. "He's been more internal and to himself on cars, setups, kind of been on his own little island.

"If he really embraces this and is right there alongside Mark day in and day out, they'll get it figured out. It may take changes in driving style, a lot of things that aren't familiar to him. But he's going to have every opportunity."

Johnson said that everyone at Hendrick wants Earnhardt to succeed and that they all are trying to encourage him.

"It's been tough on him," Johnson said. "His confidence has been beat down some, but I think the unification between the 88 and the 5 is very good for him. He looks up to Mark, and Mark is more than willing to help him."

So is Gordon, who believes things weren't as bleak as they appeared last season for Earnhardt.

"It's so competitive out there, and it doesn't take much to get off track,'' Gordon said last week on media day. "I know that sometimes it looks like they're way off, but I don't think they are.

"Probably what's left is just to get that confidence up. It happens with everybody. If the driver is confident, then the crew chief is confident and the pit crew is confident. It just trickles all the way down."

Gordon and Martin have raced long enough to know that the difference between 25th and fifth in Cup can be a small gap if all the right pieces are in place to improve. Martin is 100 percent confident that those pieces are there for Earnhardt and the 88 team.

"They don't have to make a huge jump in performance to get that monkey off their back," Martin said. "If they only make minor progress on the performance side, and they have the opposite kind of racing luck than they had last year, they will make the Chase and have a very respectable season."

At this point, failure is not an option. Earnhardt has to get it done. The pressure to succeed always has existed for the son of a NASCAR legend, but that pressure is greater than ever this season.

"There are days and moments where you feel a lot of pressure," Earnhardt said. "The headlines sting a little bit, so you just kind of wait for that to wear off.

"For the most part, I get through the day without a lot of problems. I'm used to it. I don't feel more [pressure] than a month ago or six months ago."

But Earnhardt understands the task at hand.

"We have to get out there and prove ourselves," he said. "We're going to try our hardest to be ruthless from the first lap to the last. I know what I can accomplish as a driver."

No more excuses. Earnhardt is out of time.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks." He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.