It’s the sticky situation most people never want to bring upon themselves, but one that’s all but inevitable throughout the course of adult life. The reasons behind it come in all shapes and sizes: you could have landed a better job, just wanted to make a career change, or simply had a boss show you the door, in a not-so-nice way.
But no matter the road you travel to get there, each case leads to the same ending: your job is over, almost. Before you move on to the next phase of life, you finish out the last chapter as a “lame duck,” knowing for a fact your time with the company is about to end but continuing to go through the motions until your time is up.
It’s a mindset Dale Earnhardt Jr. deals with daily. Since his decision to leave his job at DEI – the only Cup organization he’s ever known – the knowledge Junior would be moving on has only become more pronounced since June, when his acceptance of a job with Hendrick Motorsports for 2008 became public. Suddenly, his sole safety net throughout eight seasons of racing was coming to a close; as each day has come and gone since, the reality of a brighter tomorrow loomed ever closer. With personal preference his reasoning and a future as bright as new teammate Jeff Gordon‘s DuPont Chevrolet, there’s no question that Junior’s next chapter will start with all the pieces in place. No matter what he does for the rest of this year, NASCAR’s most popular driver will still wind up at that same start/finish line, taking the green flag with a clean slate and a new set of heavier expectations.
So, in the interim, no one would blame Junior if he got a little complacent. After all, there’s a sponsorship deal to sew up over on the HMS side; and while Junior’s sister Kelley handles a lot of the business objectives, Junior certainly must play a role in things to some extent. There’s also the matter of scheduling testing and sponsor appearances and increasing communication in general with his new organization. In the meantime, DEI has been busy moving on; the recent acquisition of Ginn Racing was the latest in a long line of power-play moves designed to show that the last thing Junior’s team will do next year is fall apart.
It’s two soon-to-be-divorced giants of the sports moving in completely opposite directions, a chasm of differing philosophies that would make it perfectly logical for Junior’s performance to fall off the rest of this season.
Instead, he’s stepped it up.
It wasn’t just the unlikelihood of the second-place finish at Pocono Sunday that stunned both astute observers and casual fans alike; it’s the way in which the team battled back to get the job done. After winning the pole – Junior’s first since 2002 – the No. 8 began a slow but steady process of plodding backwards through the field, finally spinning out of its misery on lap 124 to fall to the tail end of the lead lap.
“Where were we in the middle of that race? We were tanking,” exclaimed an animated Junior about how things stood, with the car 27th and its driver looking more like the Junior of old at Pocono – the one who hadn’t posted a top-10 finish in his last six starts at the track.
That moment is the point where weaker teams would just worry about collecting a check and going home. But Junior – who had been more animated and descriptive about the handling of his car than virtually any other driver – put his faith in crew chief Tony Eury Jr. to make some drastic changes. Eury responded by changing the shock package in the car – a risky maneuver that nearly cost the team a lap – and putting in a totally different setup he gambled would bring the No. 8 back to the front.
It did. Some feisty driving – along with pit strategy – left the No. 8 team a surprising second by race’s end, a run deemed all the more critical by Kurt Busch‘s dominating run on Sunday. That allowed the Las Vegas native to slip into Junior’s Chase spot by a mere seven points – but the damage was kept to a minimum.
“If I don’t run second, man, we lose a lot of points to Kurt,” said Junior matter-of-factly. “This is a blessing in disguise.”
Most importantly, the run exuded confidence the team could overcome the obstacles laid out before them – the type of focus needed to distract a group who’s worked together for several years that the end is near.
“I think we’re a better team than 12th or 13th now,” said Junior after the race, a man acting like he’s building a dynasty with the team he’s with rather than preparing to leave them behind. “I think we’re way better than that (this season). We just have had a lot of the bad luck, and we cheated and got caught. So, you know, those types of things have hurt us a lot in the points.”
“But we’re way better than this and I think the cream is going rise to the top, so I ain’t too worried about it.”
Of course, Junior’s attitude seems to be the opposite of the man he’s replacing – Kyle Busch spent the better part of the first month looking like someone trying every which way to get put out of his “lame duck” misery. Firing off at anyone who would listen, Busch outwardly expressed a desire to move ahead. But what he doesn’t realize – and what Junior does – is that to do so, you first have to finish up the chapter you’re leaving behind.
“What would we give up for?” Junior exclaimed about his current situation, removing the “I” despite the fact many members of his team won’t be moving on with him after the season. “We have it made, man. We have the greatest opportunity in the world. Up and down pit road, all these guys – crewmen, drivers, it is not only a pleasure but a privilege to be in this sport.”
“I am glad to be able to come here every weekend. It gets tough. I love it, and can’t wait until the next race.”
With that type of attitude, his crew can’t wait, either – and that has Junior in position to be a contender in a season where he could have packed it in.