The Frontstretch: For Junior, Patience Is A Virtue by Thomas Bowles -- Monday April 14, 2008

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For Junior, Patience Is A Virtue

Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Monday April 14, 2008

 

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.

Again.

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.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has powered his way out front early and often in 2008; the key for the team has become staying there at the finish.

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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NASCAR Easter Eggs: A Few Off-Week Nuggets to Chew On
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Susan Lolley
04/14/2008 07:34 AM
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I keep hoping that both Jr and Tony will realize that their combination really doesn’t produce winning results. Would it be so bad to have Tony work with the team in another capacity and get a crew chief that can tame Jr and capture one or two victories for the year? Obviously the cars are consistently good —- but the driver-crew chief relationship has to reach a different level. Why can’t they see that?

Mark
04/14/2008 08:40 AM
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Earnhardt and Eury looked on with admiration and awe ? I hope someone caught that on film . What a screen saver ! In fact , other than no wins , the 2008 season for Dale is almost an exact copy of his 2003 , 2004 , 2005 , 2006 , and 2007 seasons . He runs good and leads laps and then fades . The reason he fades is that he is not very good at communicating what changes the car needs . And if he can’t specifically tell the crew what to do , how can they be expected to do anything other than make an educated guess . He isn’t unique in that respect. This problem is fairly wide spread in Cup racing . There aren’t many drivers and crew chiefs who are solidly on the same wave length .

Max
04/14/2008 09:59 AM
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I really hope I am wrong, but as this season progresses, I am wondering if Dale Jr. should have left Tony Jr. at DEI and had a complete break from his past. If everything at Hendrick is new and improved for Junior, but he keeps having the same results, then the only constant there is Tony Jr. And make no mistake about it, Tony Jr. is no Chad Knaus.
However, if the opposite is true and it is Junior that cannot adequately relay to his crew chief what the car needs to be competitive, then that is when he definately needs a Chad Knaus-type to properly run the race with his own knowledge.
I think that this season is a pivotable one for Tony Jr. as Dale Jr’s crew chief.

aircrewman
04/14/2008 10:36 AM
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Now on sale!!! # 88 finger nails …Nascar has seen the need to sell this item because of all the finger nail droppings found in the stands after races from JR nation fans chewing at them WAITING for a win !!!!! they are also looking into selling DENTURES

Larry
04/14/2008 11:01 AM
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Couldn’t be that the car of tomorrow (Today) is a fickle little beast; could it? These two guys just changed everything they ever knew in their life’s, when they went to Hendrick. Now after a few races, because they are not winning every race it’s time to throw one of them under the bus. Give me a break!!! What will you guys be saying when they do win? That NASCAR set it up so they could. Get real, Dale and Tony Jr are doing fine, their communication is rough at times, but they are related to each other; have you guys never fought with a family member before? The media makes a big deal out of every misstep they, and now Hendrick makes.If you guys have any racing experience at all you know that a few races does not make a season. Sit back and watch.

Michael
04/14/2008 12:51 PM
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Max, there is one other constant besides Tony , and that is Dale Jr. I think people should really begin to look at the whole picture and realize that the problem might very well have been Dale Jr. all the time . He has gone through a number of good crew chiefs , along with engine builders , and crew members , but his results have not improved one bit . And when he wins , and he will , he won’t be doing anything he didn’t do at DEI , because he won races there too . To sum up , he has changed everything that can be changed except brand of race car , and still the same results . Tony Eury Jr. has never been the problem . Tony Eury Sr. wasn’t able to turn things around either , nor was Gibson .

Kevin in SoCal
04/14/2008 12:56 PM
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Eliott Sadler hasnt won a race in a while, why no article about him? Kasey Kahne hasnt won a race in a long time, what about him? Before the Daytona 500, Ryan Newman hadnt won an race either, where’s his article? This Junior nut-hugging stinks of fromunda cheese!

Connie
04/14/2008 02:32 PM
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Here are the 8 vs 88 stats for the yeart
Daytona M Martin 31st Jr 9th

Fontana Martin 16th Jr 40th Wrecked by the 5

LV Martin 10th Jr 2nd

Atlanta Martin 22 down 2 laps Jr 3rd

Bristol Almirola 8th Jr. 5th

Martinsville Almirola 42 BLOWN ENGINE (Surprise they still blow engines) Jr. 6th

Texas Martin 8th Jr. 12th

Phoenix 5th Jr. 7th

8 Car 4 top 10’s 88 Car 6 top 10’s

8 Car 11-20 1 – 88 1
8 Car 21-30 1 – 88 0
8 Car 31-40 1 – 88 1
8 Car 41-43 1 – 88 0

Jr is setting 3rd in points where is 88? Oh thats right 2 part time drivers not point chasing.

You Jr. bashers should look at the stats before you get on your high horse. Only 2 out of 8 races did the 8 finish higher than the 88.

aircrewman
04/14/2008 03:06 PM
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Connie mark martin is like 80 years old….PLease!!! and LARRY, blaming the cot for Eury & JR’s mistakes ???? DIDN’T HMS win LIKE EVERY COT race last year….it seems they should have a handle on things but DON’T !!! When jr went to HMS you guys & the media were ready to crown him the NEXT RICHARD PETTY who is and always will be the KING… thats why nobody’s bashing kane or sadler or any other guys …..so sit around with egg on your face and take it!!!!!

Larry
04/14/2008 03:31 PM
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A/Cman 3rd in the points is egg? I’ll take it!!

Mike
04/14/2008 04:49 PM
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Connie, is there something you’re trying to tell us ? I notice you went out of your way to look up and excuse poor finishes by Dale Jr. but you didn’t bother to give an excuse for the 8 car when they had a bad finish , Fontana and Atlanta for example . You did manage to give us all something to think about though . With the top 10 finishes being so close ( and with one very inexperienced driver ) it looks like the DEI car is pretty much matching the 88 in performance .

Larry
04/14/2008 05:21 PM
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Mike….Except for One important performance indicator… 3rd in points (JR.) vs. 14th (DEI and whoever they can entice to drive for them any particular weekend), enough said..

Connie
04/14/2008 05:58 PM
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I didn’t have to look up why Jr finished 40th. It was the Wonderful Leaky Seepy Race track race. Hard to forget that.

And if 3rd in points is egg on my face I’ll take mine over med.!!!

Mike
04/14/2008 06:43 PM
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Larry,not quite enough said . The point difference is due to the fact that the 8 has two different drivers and one of them , Aric Almirola , is just starting out, so i’m not sure how the points position would be a very good indicator of how the 8 compares to the 88 in performance this season . So i’ll go back to Connies’ excellent point about the two cars being almost equal in top ten finishes .

Larry
04/14/2008 07:05 PM
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Please refer to my previous post Mike. You have a nice day.

ratco
04/14/2008 08:14 PM
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Give it a rest Tony and little E are fine started out and will finsh on top… did you ever hear Jeff and Ray go at it Jeff was such a brat

Gordon81Wins
04/14/2008 09:31 PM
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Are you sure it’s LeTarte, or just Letarte?

Marc
04/14/2008 10:54 PM
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Let me tell you about another Dale, from a few years ago. He won a couple of key races, but was a constant backmarker, often wrecking his vehicle, or succumbing to engine failure, broken parts, etc. They threatened to take his ride away. Put Robby Gordon in the seat for a test session. Found out the car was junk. Taught the driver how to communicate to the crew chief what he needed. Driver went on to win the 1999 Winston Cup. Driver…Dale Jarrett.

 

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