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Dale Earnhardt Jr. is struggling to find a groove in his final season

Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn't having the kind of final season he was hoping for. Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Dale Earnhardt Jr. won't remember much from his 2017 races. He has learned not to dwell on the bad days.

He will remember the 2017 Daytona 500. It marked his first race back after sitting out the final 18 events of 2016 because of a concussion. He might rue that a spinning Kyle Busch collected him as Earnhardt went from leading the Daytona 500 to out of the race.

Oh, what might have been had Busch not spun. But the rest of 2017, Earnhardt's last season as a NASCAR Cup driver, has served as one to forget. His current average finish of 21.7 would rank next-to-last in his 18-year career. He sits 22nd in the standings, also on pace as his worst full season except for his terrible 2009 year.

Unless he finds enough speed and/or enough strategy to pull off an upset for his 27th career NASCA Cup win, Earnhardt will have to settle for going out with a season in which he underachieved.

Take that back. The term "settle" doesn't exactly work in this context.

"During the recovery, during my rehabilitation, there was a big chunk of time where I wasn't coming back," Earnhardt said. "I had made up my mind that I wasn't going to come back. ... I didn't possess the attributes to be able to come back and drive."

Coming back from the injury -- his doctors actually used the term "sick" to describe Earnhardt after his concussion in 2016 -- gives Earnhardt a sense of pride. But his disappointing results certainly have brought his ability back into the conversation. Did fans expect too much out of him after missing six months? Have his talents diminished?

In April, Earnhardt announced this would serve as his last season, that he wanted to go out on his own terms. He now faces the harsh reality that he could go winless in his final 55 starts. Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart won in their final seasons the past couple of years, allowing them a feeling of leaving the sport while still performing among the elite.

Earnhardt has a different feeling of accomplishment. He walked down the aisle for his wedding on New Year's Eve, and he knows if he has kids, he won't have any problems playing with them. None of the vision nor the balance issues that plagued him for a couple of months last year, scaring him that he would have to live the rest of his life unable to drive and unable to walk in a straight line, have recurred this season.

That recovery will have to serve as a personal triumph while he knows he just didn't have his best year professionally.

"To be an athlete in any sport, you possess instincts and reaction time," Earnhardt said. "You possess these attributes that are above the average individual, and you hone those, and over the years those are improved and sharpened.

"And when I got hurt, I lost all of that. I lost all of my advantage to being a race-car driver. But that wasn't a big deal because I was so bad off, I just wanted to make sure I got normal. I got back to being able to not be miserable all the time."

He admits he has difficulty not feeling miserable in the car when he doesn't have the speed of the leaders. His Hendrick Motorsports team hasn't had much fun, and he doesn't want them to feel the pressure of letting down the Earnhardt fan base with a crummy final season.

Crew chief Greg Ives, trying to view the season as a realist, believes that the team does feel more pressure to do well in Earnhardt's final year.

"It's not fun," Ives said. "It's frustrating when you're going to these race tracks the last time for Dale and, for whatever reason, not performing well or having parts break or accidents. That's definitely not the way you want to send off your last race, your last part of the season.

"Dale and I have talked about it a lot -- we're not going to remember the wrecks. We're not going to remember the poor finishes. What typically we'll remember is what we did to get through it and those things that we did well."

Looking at Earnhardt's average finish from last year (15.6) to this year (21.7) would indicate his skills do not match his ability from a year ago. But two of his three Hendrick teammates also have run worse this season. After 24 races, Jimmie Johnson averaged a finish of 14.7 last year and is at 17.2 this year. While Chase Elliott's average finish has improved from 15.2 to 13.8, Kasey Kahne's has dropped from 16.9 to 20.1.

None of them have had a year to celebrate, although Johnson's three wins keep him among the championship contenders.

"I don't think it has anything to do with coming back from the injury or any of that," said Earnhardt's former crew chief Steve Letarte, now an NBC Sports analyst. "Knowing him, the fact that he made that [retirement] announcement got the pressure off, I would say that set him up for success -- knowing he can go out, have a good time and race."

Letarte does believe that any athlete who misses six months would fall behind other athletes who compete for those six months -- that's just the natural state of competition.

But Earnhardt saw Kyle Busch come back from an 11-race layoff because of a broken leg to win the title in 2015 and dismisses such talk.

"There are a lot of things that play a role in being competitive," Earnhardt said. "I think that I'm healthy, and I'm happy and thrilled that I'm healthy. I still think I can drive a race car, but there is really no excuse for us not performing well or meeting expectations.

"There is no excuse for missing a lot of races. Kyle missed a lot of races with his injuries and came back and was successful right out of the gate. I felt like I was ready. I felt like I could come in and compete. I still feel that way. We've just got to get our stuff together as a team."

Earnhardt believes his team and the entire Hendrick organization has had one of those years in which performance lacks as part of the cyclical nature of racing. He has had them before, and he knows the answers don't come in just a week or two.

"The team works closely enough with me to know that I'm plugged in, and they still see something in me that gives them confidence that if we can get the cars going and get everything working right, we can have some good runs," Earnhardt said.

"There is still some time to make that happen, but we've got a long way to go to catch some of those guys. Some of those guys are so fast, I don't know where that speed is at, but it's not [going to be found] at the race track."

It will be found back in the shop. Ives believes his crew remains in a good state mentally to find that speed. Before Earnhardt's injury in 2016, the crew tried to win every practice, and once Earnhardt suffered the concussion, Ives said the team also had a change in focus.

"When he was out, that kind of mellowed our group out, like we've got to get back to the basic of just finishing again," Ives said. "That was my expectation with Dale coming back. It wasn't: He's got six month's rest and we're going to go back and get top-5s and wins.

"We're just going to go out there and finish where we're running, top-10s, and continue to build. That's where our mindset was."

All seemed going well at Daytona until the crash. And then at Atlanta, the team had an issue with an air wrench. The spiral had begun.

"All those things started to kick us down and put us in a points position we could never dig back out of," Ives said. "Every time we tried, it just didn't happen. Every time we had two or three good weeks, we'd get kicked back down another week later.

"My expectations coming back were: Don't set the world on fire, making sure we're working on the fundamentals of a solid race car, solid strategy, and just finishing races. At the end, it didn't quite turn out like that."

In just two years, the Earnhardt-Ives relationship just doesn't seem as strong as it did in the three-win 2015 in Earnhardt's first year post-Letarte.

The three races Earnhardt won with Ives in 2015 still rank Ives as the crew chief with the third-most wins with Earnhardt, behind Tony Eury Sr. (15 wins) and Letarte (five wins).

"I didn't think I would win another race after 2010," Earnhardt said. "I thought that was it. I thought I was going to squirm around in the back until everybody had just had enough of me.

"But somehow or another we got back in Victory Lane a few more times, so that was pretty cool. ... I know what our potential is. You look at 2013, '14, '15 -- that is our potential. We have been progressing as a team for years all through that period. I expect us to be able to maintain that type of performance, and we haven't been able to do it."

Earnhardt stresses that he doesn't believe his concussions sapped him of his ability, his resolve nor his comfort level to race on the edge. He said he doesn't feel worn out, nor his reaction time has gotten worse. Ives points to Earnhardt's ranking sixth in a practice at Michigan, where he posted an average speed of 201.511 mph around the 2-mile oval, as evidence that Earnhardt still has the ability to wheel a race car.

"Being out of the car was hard," Earnhardt said "[It took] a lot of hard work to get back, but once I was fresh and charged up and ready to go in February when we got to Daytona and I still feel good today.

"I don't feel like that I am missing anything or if I'm not mentally or physically aware."

Team owner Rick Hendrick will point to bad luck, along with the performance of the team. Johnson, whose crew shares a shop with Earnhardt's crew and they work on the cars together, said Earnhardt has seemed relaxed through it all.

"Inside the walls of Hendrick Motorsports, it's business as usual," Johnson said. "We're not happy with where we are. We want to be dominating every race as a group. ... We want to win. He wants to win, and Greg wants to win.

"That team is preparing each and every week, regardless of who was in it last year, to win. I think there's more outside pressure, and I think Dale is aware of his fan base and what's written and what's said maybe more than some other drivers. And there certainly has been pressure on that side."

The pressure at Hendrick to win comes naturally. Letarte remembers the time Hendrick came to him after a third-place finish and "he politely said he didn't come here to run good."

But everyone knows the process.

"It's not as easy as snapping your fingers and saying, 'I just want to win for Dale,'" Ives said. "I think Dale's success for the season would be continuing to mesh as a group, to continue to find confidence and find momentum and find whatever it is -- whether it's a win and we make the Chase, whether it's a win in the Chase, whether it's three top-10s in a row, whether it's five top-10s and a top-5.

"Those are the things that you've got to continue to build on. The reality of the story is, competitively, we have to start there. We can't start and say we're going to go out there and win the next three races. That's smoke and mirrors."

That leads to the question of whether going winless in his final year would make Earnhardt's last season a disappointment, a stain on his legacy.

"How many wins does Mark Martin have?" Letarte said in answering that question.

"Thirty-something" the reporter responded.

Letarte had made his point. Martin had won 40.

"[Earnhardt] has 26 -- whether he makes that 27th or not changes his legacy not one bit," Letarte said. "You can write Dale Jr.'s legacy -- you can write it now as far as behind the wheel. ... That's a compliment.

"When you can look at a driver and you can say, 'Would a win make any difference?' and the answer is no, then they've already had such an impactful career."

Martin would know about that. He failed to win in his final 133 career starts.

"It doesn't matter at all to me," Martin said about the impact of whether Earnhardt wins this year. "Although I think it was awesome that Tony got a win last year. I think it's huge. It's fantastic.

"But at the end of the day, when it's all said and done with and you have no more say whether or not it happens, it doesn't matter. It doesn't diminish anything that he's done or accomplished."

Hendrick also said he wouldn't consider a winless season a disappointment when it comes to Earnhardt.

"You look at the [two] championships he won in Xfinity, you look at his contribution, what he's done to mentor young drivers, what he's done to give people an opportunity to crew chief, the way he's conducted himself with the fans and the kids," Hendrick said.

"His contribution, that being a genuine, real person -- if you're a champion and you win a lot of races, that's great. But I think you've got to look at what contribution did you make to the sport that wasn't just for you."

Earnhardt has driven for only two NASCAR Cup teams -- one owned by his father (and then his stepmother after his father's death) and Hendrick. The Earnhardt-Hendrick ties go back decades, with one of Hendrick's first crewmen being Earnhardt's grandfather Robert Gee.

"We'd love to see him win and get in the Chase and win the championship," Hendrick said. "I think that would be great. But I think all the good things he's done, all the people he's helped, and he has been a champion and he's won and you see people gravitate toward him.

"He's been an ambassador, He's done a lot for a lot of people. Me included. He told me he's going to make me popular. He said, 'You're not very popular, but I'm going to make you popular.' I appreciated that."

Earnhardt has earned the sport's most popular driver award for the past 14 years. He should win a 15th this year. That will require him to show up at the postseason awards banquet even if he didn't make the playoffs.

He will have to know that he worked for this trophy, one that required him to race, and one that he worked for just as much as any win on the track.

"My doctor told me, 'Once you get well enough that you feel like yourself and you come in here, you are going to come in here and say, 'Hey, how much more work do we have to do to get to the level that I was at before the injury?''" Earnhardt said.

"We started discussing that and went to work trying to sharpen those attributes and made the decision to try to come back. ... I thought that I could come back and do well."

Earnhardt talks one day about trying not to get too disappointed with the season, but other days he knows that not even making the NASCAR playoffs will sting.

"I'm not going to be too down and disappointed about it," he said about the possibility of a winless season. "I've had a lot of bad finishes in my career. We didn't win every race we went to.

"I can't remember anything about those, and I probably won't remember much about this season when it's all said and done. ... I try not to dwell on it too much. I used to let it eat me alive."

He has 12 races. Just two left if he wants to make the playoffs. The best chances to win likely will come in a couple of weeks at Richmond, and then potentially in October at Talladega.

"You're going to be disappointed if you don't make the playoffs," Earnhardt said. "There'll be a big hurt in your heart because you feel like you deserved to be in that group. You feel like you're good enough and feel like your team is good enough, and when you don't make it, it doesn't feel good."

Earnhardt remembers the feeling he had in 2014 when he was knocked out in the second round of the playoffs and came back and won at Martinsville.

That feeling of accomplishment could make this season.

"If you can win a race during that time when those other guys are trying to win that championship, it's a bit of a statement, I think, for anybody that's not in the playoffs. ... If we can win any race before the end of the season, just to go back to Victory Lane and know that feeling one more time before it's over with, that would be awesome," he said.

And if not?

"When you are out there driving and beating your head against the wall trying to figure out how to get faster, you've got to remind yourself a little bit to enjoy it, enjoy these last few runs because it is fun," said Earnhardt, giving an analogy that would make some people cringe, considering his history of concussions.

"It's fun driving the car. Just the pure enjoyment of racing and driving is always going to be there, and that is going to be there long after I retire, and I will miss some things about that. So, I'm just trying to make sure I'm really taking that in."