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What's wrong with Junior?

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. speaks with WFAE's Scott Graf following a practice session at Lowe's Motor Speedway Friday. hspace=4

It's Speed Week at Lowe's Motor Speedway. Tony Stewart won Saturday night's All-Star Race. He'll be among the favorites to win Sunday's Coca-Cola 600. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is not among the favorites to win. That's because he hardly wins nowadays. In fact, his results have fallen well short of expectations in the two years since he left the racing team formed by his legendary father. Despite his disappointing results, Earnhardt remains NASCAR's most popular driver. Two years ago, there was lots of drama surrounding Dale Earnhardt Jr. He was in a high-profile feud with his stepmother, who was running the racing team founded by his late father. So, Dale Earnhardt Jr. actually left the company called Dale Earnhardt Incorporated. The most coveted NASCAR free agent ever ended up signing with Hendrick Motorsports - essentially the New York Yankees of NASCAR. Team owner Rick Hendrick knew the day the announcement was made that expectations would immediately be high. "I can't tell you how special this is to me, how thrilled I am," Hendrick said. "And how much pressure I feel to make sure that he is going to win races." At the time, the man they call "Junior" had won 17 races at NASCAR's highest level. Fans annually voted him NASCAR's most popular driver. And for most of his career, he's been NASCAR's number one pitchman. But as race fans like Kenny Hucks of Fort Mill know, things haven't been going well for Earnhardt. "Some races he's finished in the top 10 and done good," Hucks says. " And lately he's been finishing somewhere right around, on past 15 to 20. And I don't know what the problem is." Dale Jr. fans are scratching their heads a lot these days. Those who cover the sport are too. Marty Smith is ESPN's lead NASCAR reporter. He says Earnhardt struggling so mightily is baffling, since his teammates are doing so well. "Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin all are winners this year," Smith says. " All of them are among the top 12 in points. And Junior is not. And he's not anywhere near being competitive." Earnhardt is currently 18th in points and has finished in the top five just once this season. He last seriously contended for a points championship in 2004, and has won only three times since then. What's wrong with Junior is a hot topic on message boards and NASCAR call-in shows. Smith, the reporter, says he gets several thousand emails a week from NASCAR fans. Seventy-percent he estimates, pertain to Earnhardt. Some question Earnhardt's talent. Fox Sports Analyst Larry McReynolds says that is not the problem. " He has run well at every given race track. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has not forgotten how to drive a race car." One of the theories behind Earnhardt's struggles is that his non-racing responsibilities - which include owning a lower-level race team, a realty company, and a bar - occupy too much of his time. But Hendrick Motorsports General Manager Marshall Carlson says his driver's focus and dedication is not the issue. "Dale wants to be a champion as bad as anybody I've ever seen," Carlson says. "And he's willing to put the effort into that with the team and with his own work ethic." Earnhardt has made a number of on-track mistakes this year, leading some to think he's actually trying too hard. Following a muggy practice session at Lowe's Motor Speedway Friday, Earnhardt stands in his team's transporter while his crew members put parts away. Junior has his driver suit half-off, revealing a soaked t-shirt underneath. "Only when you run bad you know the pressure's there," Earnhardt says. "When you run good, everything's great. You're living up to expectations and doing what you want to do and accomplishing what you want to accomplish. But when you run poorly, it's a high pressure situation, very stressful on you and everyone involved in your program. You know, it's tough on everybody. " The frustration Earnhardt is feeling these days is evident on his face and his tone, He looks and sounds beat down. "The frustration is trying to turn it around. You think you're doing everything you need to do and you should see results and you're not seeing any." Perhaps no one is trying harder to fix what's wrong than crew chief and cousin Tony Eury, Jr. His job is fixing Earnhardt's car when it's not fast, and fixing his mind when it's not right. And lately, he's had to do lot of the latter. "I mean, it's tough on him," Eury Jr. says. "He's definitely, we all know he's got the talent to drive a race car. Just mentally, you know one man can't take but so much." Earnhardt's contemporaries see every weekend just how much is expected of the 34-year-old man who's considered the face of his sport. Driver Mark Martin says Earnhardt handles the pressure as well as anyone could, but he doesn't envy his teammate. "I feel he's the strongest man, got the broadest, strongest shoulders of any man in NASCAR racing," Martin says. "And I would not trade places with him." Earnhardt will try again for his first win of the season Sunday in the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway. But after struggling in Saturday night's all-star race, indications are that the drought will go on. And so too will all the scrutiny.