Maybe the biggest fan criticisms of Dale Earnhardt Jr. are that he doesn’t care about his performance or that he doesn’t have the will to win. Or maybe not even the talent.
Maybe the biggest criticism of his team owner, Rick Hendrick, is that he doesn’t give Earnhardt Jr. the best cars or the best personnel.
And then there are those who think Hendrick should just rid himself of the Earnhardt Jr. experiment after three years of mediocre-at-best results.
Both driver and owner refuse to believe those criticisms. The next time they’ll get to prove that comes this weekend when practice opens for the 2011 Daytona 500.
“We understand that we haven’t run well,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I’ve owned up to all my issues in the past and my performance in the past and I think I wouldn’t be sitting here right now if I didn’t feel like I wanted to go win races and be successful.
“I wouldn’t put up with all the things that I put up with. I enjoy driving race cars and I want to be around for a long time. [Whether] people don’t think I will be around for a long time or not, I plan on being here for a long time. I have nothing else to do, nowhere else to go. This is what I want to do. This is where I want to be.”
That’s not exactly true. While racing for Hendrick Motorsports is where Earnhardt Jr. would like to be, he’d also like to be considered a favorite to make the Chase For The Sprint Cup. Instead, he hasn’t made the Chase the last two years and carries a 93-race winless streak into 2011. He has finished 25th and 19th in the standings the last two years.
He is on his third crew chief in four seasons at Hendrick with Steve Letarte, former crew chief for Jeff Gordon, now atop his pit box.
The 36-year-old Earnhardt Jr. has 18 career wins but only one in the last four seasons.
“It’s unfortunate that we haven’t been successful over the last several years,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “There was a period where we were successful and that gives me a lot of hope and a lot of expectation to get back, to get there again. I know I can do it. That’s what we’ll try to do this year.
“We made a lot of changes. We’re trying to fix it; we’re trying to get better. We’re making the effort to get better. We just have to wait until we get to the track to see what the results are.”
Hendrick has seen enough strong racing by Earnhardt Jr. in the last two years to believe he will be successful. How long will Hendrick keep trying, considering that Earnhardt Jr. is entering the fourth year of a five-year deal?
“He’s the same guy that the first two-thirds of  was the best car I had and then the wheels came off,” Hendrick said. “When we hit it, it’s going to be great. I hope that I’m here and we can talk about it next year. … I know it’s there. I can feel it.
“[I’ll do] whatever it takes.”
Earnhardt Jr. has pledged to do that as well. Letarte requires him to attend more team meetings and be at the car earlier on certain practice days.
“It’s Steve and his team and they have everything like they want it,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “They have it this way for a reason. I’m coming in there trying to earn my respect and just do whatever my job is that day and try to do it well and become part of the team.”
Letarte and Earnhardt Jr. have known each other for years as Letarte has a friendship with Earnhardt Jr.’s cousin Tony Eury Jr.
Earnhardt Jr. wouldn’t compare his crew chiefs, but his former crew chief, Lance McGrew, says there might be a difference between himself and the new crew chief.
“Steve has an unbelievable personality and he can talk his way out of just about anything,” McGrew said. “Mr. Hendrick is unbelievably good at putting people in good positions. When you have a guy like Steve, that’s a really good fit.”
Letarte’s upbeat personality certainly contrasts with Earnhardt Jr., who has faced criticism that he appears too happy when he’s struggling. And then there are times where he seems too depressed to get himself out of the hole.
“I see these videos of me five years ago and [I’m] definitely more jubilant, [a] cheerier guy and I don’t know if I’m just getting older or doing this so long and just the grind and the failures of the last several years definitely have a lot to do with it,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “But to be honest, I’m happy inside. I promise.
“I may not smile as much or I may look a little monotone on the outside, but I have the same hopes and dreams that I’ve always had and I have the same … anxiety and anticipation of the race, the moment; all those things are still on fire inside of me. I think I have become more reserved, maybe due to how I’ve seen me be judged or be sort of analyzed. I sort of maybe just change my outward approach a little bit toward everybody.”
A couple of wins or better performances could change that outlook.
“Several things are easier to do, to enjoy when you are successful,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “They’re harder to do when you’re not successful. When all you have to talk about to the media is how poorly you’re running, how you’re struggling, it’s not a lot of fun.
“When you go talk to your sponsors, you’d rather be talking to them about the race you just ran, not how something broke or you made a mistake or whatever and you finished outside the top 20.”