The Frontstretch: For Dale Earnhardt, Jr., The Light At The End Of The Tunnel Is No Longer An Oncoming Train by Vito Pugliese -- Thursday August 20, 2009

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You know things have gotten pretty bad for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. when the motorsports community starts going ape-poo over his third place finish at Michigan International Speedway this past Sunday. Then again, other than a second at Talladega (courtesy of Carl Edwards getting bumped, set, and spiked off Brad Keselowski’s nose and Ryan Newman’s windshield), there hasn’t been a whole lot to cheer about.

After all, this was the year that the ship was going to be righted, and the six-win season that Darrell Waltrip originally predicted for Earnhardt in 2008 would finally come to fruition. But as (lack of) luck would have it, 2009 picked up where the frustrations of a season since passed left off – and have gotten that much worse in the process. A split with crew chief and cousin-who’s-a-brother Tony Eury, Jr. followed an embarrassing Daytona 500 and inauspicious start to the year, which both preceded a string of poor finishes that included a 36th and two 39th place runs in the previous five races. So to say Junior’s had a rough go of it at the track this year would be akin to saying senators and congressmen have enjoyed hearing some divergent views from their constituents during their recent town hall healthcare meetings.

But before my house gets pelted with AMP Energy cans or longneck Budweisers with born-on dates from 2007, let me clarify my position: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. actually is on the rebound, and if the last few weeks have not been evidence of this, the ones to follow will.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr’s season was off to a rough start, but the team seems to have turned the corner recently with a few good runs.

Case in point, the Brickyard 400 — or the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard in Indianapolis, or whatever they’re calling it these days. It was the first race in an all-new Lance McGrew machine, and, for the most part, it was at least keeping pace with fellow Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin at the front of the pack…that was, until Junior buzzed the engine in the car north of 10,000 RPM, causing it to billow smoke not seen since the Bikini Atoll tests in the mid-1950s. While the end result was demoralizing to say the least, that race showed that the car, the team, and most importantly the driver can still compete at the front of the field — much to the chagrin of many of his naysayers.

In the closing laps of the CARFAX 400 this Sunday, a sight not seen in quite sometime was taking place over the final 39 laps. The No. 88 car was charging through the field, riding the high line around the track, getting monster runs coming off of Turn 2 that saw him running sometimes as much as 10 mph faster than the cars he was overtaking for position. The consistent speed that was displayed lap after lap led Jeff Gordon’s crew chief Steve Letarte to warn him that, “…the 88 is coming like a bat out of hell!”

And he didn’t even bounce it off the wall as he likely would have just a couple of months earlier.

In Junior’s post-race interview, you could see a glimmer of hope in his eye, and that trademark Earnhardt smirk appeared (if but briefly.) It wasn’t quite a win, but more of a statement that, “We can win from here.” As I have contended since the split with Tony Eury, Jr. in late May, it would take a few weeks to blow through some old inventory and get some new cars designed and built to McGrew and team manager/engineer Brian Whitesell’s liking.

Well, OK…a few months.…but who’s counting?

The same car that was running so well at Indy and came home third at Michigan was one that, according to Dale Jr.’s post-race interview, was built similar to the other cars in the Hendrick shops –- such as the one built right next to it that has won the most races in the series so far through 2009. One car has made that much difference in the way he has performed this year, and the communication between driver and crew chief continues to build as the car is able to be improved throughout the race – something it has not done in nearly two years of competition.

It was a solid performance by the team, driver, and machine, culminated in an inspiring (though not awe-inspiring) runner-runner up finish at Michigan that, I believe, will set the tone for the weeks to come. Keep in mind that the site of Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s first win – Richmond, Virginia – is coming up in two more weeks. While Michigan International Speedway was the site of his most recent win, and possibly the run that resuscitates his season, Richmond was the site of his second career win, and his most recent race that was won based on speed — not a fuel gamble. Should he prevail there, that win might be one that gives his career a second life.

If not, at the very least, it will surely piss off the gang over at www.over88ted.com.

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mkrcr
08/20/2009 01:29 PM
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Disclaimer: stating the obvious.
Yea, JR looked strong coming through the field. But that’s because he pitted when he should have (unlike Mark). He was “charging” 10mph faster because everyone else was too worried about mileage instead of racing. I ain’t jumping on the JR’s back bandwagon until I see some consistency up front. If Alan would have made the right pit call and brought Mark in at the same time as JR.,the results may have shown different. JR looks good on a free run, no so much with a little pressure.

The Old Guy
08/20/2009 04:56 PM
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His last 5 races 15th, 36th, 28th, 39th and 3rd.

I think that light at the end of the tunnel is still the headlight of an oncoming train.

Jimbo
08/20/2009 05:52 PM
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I’ve got to agree with mkrcr’s comments. That Junior could only get to third with others slowing to save gas and/or running out and he having plenty of fuel and fresher tires seems to me to be a failure, not an accomplishment, It’s kind of like the old joke about the football game where the team leading pulls its players off the field and three plays later the other team scores.

Overra88ted
08/20/2009 06:58 PM
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It’s delusional articles like this that give fodder for guys at www.Over88ted.com. I have NO affiliation with them, but at least they don’t make excuses. Why would a 20th someplace driver in points, who has only 2 top fives all year piss sombody off? Even a blind squirrel finds a acorn occasionally. Highly doubt they’re AMP’d up like Vito.

RJ
08/20/2009 08:09 PM
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I think what most have overlooked is that others did pit with JR, like the 20 car and others and JR ran away from them, yes sure the leaders were going soft on the pedal but “slice-bread”, who was supposed to be the best Gibbs car didn’t hang with him, nor did a lot of the others that pitted with JR. Seems it wasn’t more than 3-4 years ago where everyone said Jeff G should retire he had forgotten how to win, lost his touch, washed up etc, he sure looks washed up sitting in 2nd in the standings with at least 15 wins since all the “washed up” days.

Jim
08/20/2009 08:27 PM
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Wow, an average finish of 24th over the last races merits a story on turning the corner?

Then here are some drivers that are turning the corner faster than Jr., according to the “Best 25 over last 6 races” on Nascar.com statistics page:

David Stremme
Jamie McMurray
David Ragan
Truex Jr.
Casey Mears

How about a little critical thinking, Vito?

Contact Vito Pugliese