Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Monday April 3, 2006
It was a beautiful day at the races at Martinsville, but 5 minutes into Sunday’s event, you’d have a hard time telling that to the fans in the stands. You see, it took no more than two laps before several thousand of them out a groan of disapproval that could be heard well into the next Virginia county.
Those fans were wearing a sea of red"¦but all their bright Budweiser colors couldn’t drown out the pieces of Budweiser car laying all over the middle of the race track. After qualifying a middling 29th, their driver, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. had put himself in that awkward position on a short track where you can be caught up in somebody else’s mess, and that’s exactly what had come to pass on Lap 2 of the DirecTV 500. Reed Sorenson checked up in front of a wad of cars, Robby Gordon hit him, and an old-fashioned bump and jam session ensued. Before Dale, Jr. could even blink an eye, he found himself right in the middle of it, the victim of contact from several cars around him. The right front corner of the 8 car had crumpled into the equivalent of a metal junkyard. Pieces of brake duct found themselves in open view, dragging on the race track and threatening to shred into a million pieces.
"Just chaos," Dale Earnhardt, Jr. said of the accident that started his day. "I got hit from behind, and I hit someone. Whoever I ran into, I ran into hard."
All of a sudden, the 8 team was faced with their biggest crisis of 2006. Dale, Jr. had run solid in the first five races of the season"¦never quite doing the stuff you write home to mom about, but quietly pushing to reassume his position among the Nextel Cup elite. Despite just leading 33 laps in his first five races (32 of those at Daytona), Dale, Jr. had come up with four finishes in the Top 11, including a season-best late race surge to 3rd at Atlanta. He entered Martinsville quietly in the Top 10 in points.
But championships aren’t just made out of consistency"¦they’re made out of the consistency created by overcoming adversity, and the jury was still out as to whether the new 8 team could respond effectively when put in a jam like this one. Last year’s debacle for D.E.I. was filled with circumstances like this race, where the 8 car got behind the 8 ball early, then neither got the quick and steady response from its crew nor the focus and positive attitude needed from its driver to put itself in a position to recover.
The mission in front of the team was clear: they could shoot themselves in the foot, or stop the pattern once and for all, giving themselves a shot in the arm. They chose the latter.
Not only did the crew clear off brake ducts, random debris, and pieces of front bumper without Dale, Jr. losing a lap, crew chief Tony Eury, Jr. was busy keeping his driver calm, cool, and collected. Dale, Jr. may have restarted 40th, missing a chunk of his race car, but he never seemed to doubt the ability of the car to run up front.
And somehow, some way, run up front he did. From 40th spot to 4th by lap 270, Dale, Jr.’s car looked more like a half-modified than a stock car, but he sliced through the field anyway, moving up with the slightest of ease. Running solidly in the Top 5, he was positioning himself to even take a shot at the lead"¦and then, after a restart, things went wrong all over again.
On Lap 315, Dale, Jr. drove in Turn 3 a little too hard trying to pass the lapped car of Ryan Newman. Newman pinched down, the 8 car’s nose pinched up"¦and the next thing anyone knew, the left side of the Budweiser Chevrolet had a date with the inside wall.
"My fault," said Dale, Jr. afterwards. "You don’t really drive underneath people in the middle of the corner like that, but I did."
Uh oh. Dale, Jr. wrecking not once, but twice in the same race? In 2005, it’d be a surprise if the car even made it back on the track, let alone finish on the lead lap.
But this is a new team, a new year, and a new attitude. Dale, Jr. again fell back to the tail end of the lead lap (18th this time), and again found yet another section of his race car aerodynamically impaired. At this point, no one really had to worry about banging fenders with the 8 car"¦there simply were no fenders left to bang.
No fenders, no track position"¦no worries. Dale, Jr. simply drove back through the field one more time. The 8 car looked worse than most wrecked cars that went behind the wall on Sunday for repairs, but by the time the dust cleared and 500 laps were complete, he had climbed all the way back to 4th place.
"Beating and banging, man I was worried that my car was really tore up too bad to be competitive," said an excited Dale, Jr. after the race. "I want to thank my team for working so hard to get me back on the race track, cutting everything away the way they did to be out of the way, working on it so the car still drove great. They didn’t give up."
That much was true"¦the crew didn’t give up. Most importantly, though, after several mistakes on the race track, Dale, Jr. didn’t give up on them.
"It is just such a pleasure to driver that car when those guys work as hard as they do," said Dale, Jr. "This company (D.E.I.) has really turned around."
It’s that small pep talk; the attitude adjustment from Dale, Jr. that’s leading everyone in the right direction. You only needed to look at those several thousand fans again to sense that; as they left the track, their groans of disapproval had turned to satisfaction and contentment.
"Just a great day for us," were Dale, Jr.’s parting words as he walked away on Sunday. "Even if we didn’t win, man, it really felt like it."
Now, that’s what one calls progress.
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