As the No. 48 crossed the finish line first Saturday night, it was the true definition of a champion returning to form. Crew chief Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson had pulled their patented magic once again; sitting in second as the race wound down, they used communication and cunning to find that extra ounce of fuel to finish first. It was the patented strategy of a duo that's proven their success; when the going gets tough, they stop at nothing to find a way to win.
Across the way, teammate Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Tony Eury, Jr. could simply look on with admiration and awe. For as the winning Hendrick trophy slipped out of their grasp and into someone else's, no one could stop them from finding another way to lose.
Lagging far behind Johnson, the No. 88 came home in 7th place, another weekend ending with potential instead of pay dirt. In what's becoming a running theme in NASCAR these days, the National Guard / AMP Energy Chevrolet has led a significant amount of laps, but failed to cash in when it matters most — the checkered flag. Forced down pit road for a late splash of gas, turns out the fuel wouldn't have made a difference in this one; Junior's 87 laps in front meant nothing when a late battle with Mark Martin left his Goodyears a pile of mush.
"It was like someone flipped a switch there at the end and the tires were gone," said Junior about the race's final segment. "We had a great car."
But Martin's was better; and with one final push, Junior's old ride pulled far ahead of his new one long before the fuel tank started running dry. Unfortunately for Junior, it's the latest misstep in a series of auspicious finishes that have taken "What momentum!" and turned it into "What if?" At Texas, Junior won the pole and led 31 of the first 47 laps; by race's end, he was a lap down in 12th. The week before, Junior was winning Martinsville as late as lap 363; by lap 500, he was 7th, matching his Phoenix struggle.
If you're counting at home, that now means Junior's winless streak in points-paying races now stands at 70; in just two weeks, he'll hit the two-year mark when he returns to the scene of his last victory (Richmond, May 2006). Throughout the course of the season, Junior's now paced the field for 355 laps; only Kyle Busch and Johnson have been out front more.
Of course, those two have trophies to show for their efforts. In Junior's case, the big goose egg just follows him around; and with each passing week, it's a weight which grows just the slightest bit larger on his back. Winning isn’t everything; but as far as weaknesses go, it’s the only thing keeping the team from taking the next step.
To Junior's credit, he's not showing any outward frustration just yet; at least, when he's out of the car.
“I am not frustrated," he said Saturday night, putting the best face forward in front of the media. "I had a good finish, am proud of my team, had a great car. I don’t know what our expectations truly were going in to the race. But I don’t think they were that good. We didn't practice very good."
"I got to thank Jimmie (Johnson) and his whole team. We used some of their setup, and that helped our car a lot. A lot of good information going back and forth [at Hendrick]. I'm happy."
But whether that information is being so easily shared between Earnhardt and Eury is another matter. Turn the radio on their frequency these days and it's a cross between bickering and, well, I just can't say it (Here's a hint: The word rhymes with witchy). Keep in mind since Eury's dad, Tony Sr., has left Junior's side, the pupil hasn't exactly matched the teacher; just one of Earnhardt's career wins has come with just him on top of the pit box. I was riding to the airport Sunday morning when a Junior fan said it best: "It's like an old married couple that fights all the time," she said. "Sometimes, the way they talk, I wonder if they shouldn't have just been broken up."
To be fair, the opinions on their relationship vary across the board, but let's put it this way; if listened to a random cross-section of the two talking at Phoenix, you'd be hard-pressed to believe this guy's not a tad ticked off at his crew chief at times.
Of course, for Eury and Junior this is the way they've always communicated once the race gets underway; but it's also not the way the other driver / crew chief relationships work at his new place of employment. Chad Knaus works as a calming influence for Johnson; Steve LeTarte is Ying to Jeff Gordon's Yang. Together, that's why the four of them combined for a 1-2 finish in the points last season; no matter how tough the circumstances, they always finished better than where they started.
Say what you will about Eury and Junior, but there's one fact that's indisputable: right now, they've been tilted in the opposite direction. All is not yet lost, of course; consistently close is still consistent, and the strong finishes have left the No. 88 third in the standings, just 86 out of the lead. More importantly, the man's light years removed from a 2007 season that was as nightmarish as it was non-competitive; instead, the ability to become a true team player has kept Junior pumped up through these early season bumps in the road.
"I hope Rick (Hendrick) is happy about the win," as Junior congratulated his teammate. "I am happy about it. I am glad that we got one. That usually means there is a lot more to come."
But the wins can’t be expected to just fall from the sky. As Junior's season progresses, it's hard not to relate it to the warning often expressed by Jeff Burton in trying times: "All you can do is put yourself in position to win," he often says, "And the rest will take care of itself."
Right now, both Junior and Eury are in a unique position to follow that rule to a T. Mistakes haven't led to momentum loss; instead, they're in better shape to make the Chase than they could have imagined at this early stage. Now, it's time to live and learn; Johnson and Gordon's teams provide not only an opportunity for inner competition, but a chance to show the benefits of inner peace.
Hopefully, the No. 88 gets busy taking notes. Right now, Junior's off-track patience has indeed become a virtue for them; but with each week that passes - and each opportunity that slips away - it's bound to get a little harder to contain the on-track frustration.
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