The Frontstretch: Ugly Ending Has Earnhardt Heading Towards Chase Self-Destruction by Thomas Bowles -- Monday July 18, 2011

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Just one month ago, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Steve Letarte seemed joined together in perfect harmony, the newly wedded driver/crew chief couple evolved into the Comeback Story of the Year. Coming within a whisker of victories not once, but twice it seemed all but certain NASCAR’s Popular Driver was on the precipice of ending a well-documented, excessively frustrating three-year Victory Lane drought that hangs like a two-ton anvil over his head. Third in the standings after Pocono in June, a happy work marriage for the duo – plus the Chases, title bids and national exposure that came with it – seemed inevitable.

Instead, turns out we were just confused; the whole relationship was stuck in the honeymoon phase. And now, after a cold dose of reality it’s time to see exactly whether this partnership will sink or swim.

That’s where we stand after Earnhardt’s 15th-place finish at Loudon, actually his best in a five-race run that’s seen him 21st, 41st, 19th, and 30th leading up to Sunday. It’s a shocking slump, one nobody saw coming and made worse considering two of those tracks were Michigan (last win) and Daytona (site of many an Earnhardt dominating performance). It’s true anything that could go wrong, has gone wrong for the No. 88 crew during this stretch; for example, a crippling tire penalty with 59 laps to go Sunday dropped Junior from inside the top 10 to 33rd. Post-race, the driver tiptoed around that faux pas but made it clear, in no certain terms he wasn’t happy with the end result.

“We didn’t do a good job,” he said. “We tried really hard. A lot of effort, but just struggled all week with the car and getting the balance that we need.”

It’s a shocking turn of events, especially at Loudon considering Earnhardt had an average finish of 6.0 the last two races there; if any speedway would have stopped the bleeding, that was a prime candidate. But on a day where clean air was key, Steve Letarte kept making the puzzling decision of pushing for four tires on the No. 88 Chevy on every caution flag; that kept them fighting from behind on a day where all three of their Hendrick counterparts, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and even Mark Martin used the pit strategy of “less is more” to work their way up front.

“I think track position was real important,” Earnhardt confirmed. “Why a couple of guys on our team got decent finishes.”

The whole situation has got to be frustrating for Letarte, an expert this year at finding exactly what button to push and when. But racing is a game of “what have you done for me lately,” and one month of wrong moves has his driver inching back towards old habits. In post-race interviews, consistency in emotion has been replaced with just the slightest bit of consternation as Earnhardt searches for answers.

“Every damn week, they change the tire,” he railed Sunday, putting Goodyear front and center to blame for his struggles. “I guess the government is getting on ‘em about how they build them, or something and they had to bring a new one here. Some kind of new construction. I didn’t like it, but we can figure it out and get a setup going and try to figure it out where it will drive good.”

Now, time is of the essence, history not on the side of NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver with statistics seemingly designed to make you nervous. In this five-week disaster, he’s fallen from third in the championship, 71 points ahead of 11th to ninth and just seven lousy points ahead of the cut. What’s worse, the Dog Days of Summer have typically been where Earnhardt starts running like a dog; in these last seven races of the regular season, he’s hardly been a factor with Hendrick (one top-5, three top-10 finishes in 21 starts). A winless Earnhardt will likely struggle at Indy, where he’s been spotty at best and then the pressure mounts even further over a highly scrutinized final month or so.

In a sense, it’s par for the course; in this post-DEI world for Earnhardt, nothing has ever come easy. His race at Loudon may have been over, but a battle to stay relevant, holding his grip on a season fighting to slip away had just begun.

Contact Tom Bowles

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07/18/2011 10:46 AM

Junior ran mid pack all race and only got into the top 10 on occasion during pit stop sequences. If this is a “shocking slump nobody saw coming”, perhaps these “nobody’s” were locked in isolation at their local prison. And now Junior has sunk completly into the mud in his attempt to blame somebody else for his troubles. He now claims that it’s the governments fault. The government is making Goodyear produce tires that Junior can’t drive on. Pay no attention to the fact that the tires are the same for everyone. Yes friends, Obama is the reason Junior sucks.

07/18/2011 12:12 PM

NASCAR changed the points format for chase so 2 winners could make the chase. They tried to get Junior that safety net at Charlotte and now may face the biggest nightmare. Junior finishing 11th or 12th in the points and missing the chase because of someone else with a win. I’d have to laugh my head off if that happened. I wonder what NASCAR and Mike Helton would come up with to make sure Junior made the chase if he was sitting 12th in the points without a win come Richmond.

07/18/2011 12:41 PM

Put DANICA in the #88. She can’t do much worst. And she is a lot easier on the eyes.

07/18/2011 01:05 PM

I think Steve Letarte is doing a wonderful job, considering what he has to work with. I agree, put Danica in the 88 and let Dale Jr. drive the transporter to the race track and goofer tires and fuel.

07/18/2011 02:08 PM

Sure Tom, it’s all Jr’s fault. And please don’t mention that he was wrecked by MM and skewered by Stewart’s childish stunt at Sonoma. And don’t forget Jamie’s lack of control that knocked him out at Daytona. Still it must be Jr’s fault.

You might also have noted that 59 laps from the end, and with an ill handling car, he went from 33rd to 15th. No, you can’t mention that, because it would mess up your story. A number of drivers commented on the tire, but Jr gets the blame for mentioning it. Too bad Jr is honest. It just gives you fodder for your biased view. Why would we expect anything else for you?

Richard Petersen
07/18/2011 04:44 PM

I am going to say this plain and simple, Dale Earnhardt Jr. should have stuck it out with DEI. Face the facts, what is one win on a fuel mileage race going to do for you in your career? On top of that, it was 3 to 4 years ago since that lonely win.

People say that “Oh, he is running better than his previous years.” Technically, he is not. Your missing the point that he doesn’t have those wins like he wants. All in favor in Dale Jr, back to DEI, say….I

sylvia richardson
07/18/2011 05:23 PM

Don,t blame Mark for any thing. thank old man rick. Rick could not leave well enough a lone. THANK GOD THIS YR WITH RICKEY BOY IS ALMOST OVER.

07/18/2011 06:28 PM

I think it was great the way Jr. fought back for every space he could after the last pit stop. I am enjoying Race Buddy & I will miss it. I could not get the video to work, but…I found a lot of interesting info in the comments, such as: “2:15pm; Jr.‘s engine is off. You can listen to it coming off the corner.” 2:35pm; Jr’s car has no power. & …has a miss in the engine.” etc. I am proud of Jr. for the way he keeps trying, like Sisyphus rolling the stone up the hill, only to have it roll back down the hill, & then have to roll it back up again. :) Steve said that did not have speed/power last week or this week. Are they r&ding a new engine for the chase…?
Jr. was driving one of JG’s leftover hand me down cars from last year yesterday. JG was driving a new one.
I agree with Richard Petersen.

bob earnhardt
07/18/2011 10:49 PM

I agree with pepper. Everyone can pile on Jr but those of us who care see that he took a terrible car and drove it in the end from 33rd to 15th. He can still drive a car and will prove that to the doubters one day before he quits. Leaving DEI and moving to Hendrick was the best thing that could have happened to him. Thanks pepper for standing up for him.

joe mama
07/19/2011 06:23 AM

the government jr mentions is nascar. i’m with pepper on this one. jr does what he can with what he’s got. his pit crew isn’t doing him any favors either. he hardly ever gains any spots on pit road.

07/19/2011 11:02 AM

Jr. has had a good season this year and I think he has a crew chief that can make him successful. He has just had a string of terrible luck-wrong place/wrong time and some pit crew issues. I do think his pit crew could be improved because he very seldom ever gains positions on pit road but usually loses several spots. Look at Kyle Busch. He’s a good driver but his pit crew evidently gains hims spots on pit road just about every stop and Kyle does a heck of a job entering and exiting the pits and seems to never ever get a speeding penalty. Seems strange to me. I’ve seen jr. get speeding peanlties when he lost spots on pit road. Just very strange how that happens. Again, Jr. has definitely done better this year but has just had some terrible luck the last four or five races. If he can avoid some more bad luck in the next few races I look for him to improve in the points and make the chase. One thing about Nascar, you can have a decent team and be a decent driver but you still have to have luck for everything to fall into place. Look at the luck Kyle Busch had in the chase a year or two ago. Bad luck ruined his chances of winning a championship. That’s just the way it is. While I don’t think jr. is in the league with Kyle, Jeff, Jimmey and some others. He still is a decent driver and his stats have been made worst in recent years with some bad crew chiefs and other issues. And, I still think he has had a hard time adjusting to this COT. Even when he was with DEI in equipment that was probably not as good as Hendricks he ran pretty good. His final year he did pretty good but was plagued with several engine failures that really hurt him. Again, no one is saying he is his dad or as good as some of the drivers mentioned but he is a decent driver with the right crew chief. Even Gordon hasn’t been near the driver he was since he lost Everham as his crew chief. Again, if Jr. can avoid some of this bad luck I still think he makes the chase. Time will tell.

07/19/2011 12:20 PM

yeah… put me in the pepper camp as well and I think Larry’s firing on all eight. The racing gods are certainly not smiling on jr right now but he doesn’t seem to have lost hope. still it’s hard to feel sorry for someone in above average equipment making the kind of doh he does.

07/19/2011 01:18 PM

And, remember this. Jr. even with all the bad luck issues in the last four or five races is still in the top ten in points. So that does indicate that out of fourty three drivers he is still top ten in points and to me even though he doesn’t have a win he still has done a pretty good job this year. If he can avoid some of these wrecks and without any mechanical issues I still think he makes the chase and for doing that you would have to consider the year to be pretty successful. Then, you just need to keep building on that success and get better and get wins and possible a championship. I think all of this is within reach if his team keeps improving.


Contact Tom Bowles

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