Thomas Bowles · Monday July 18, 2011
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.
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