NASCAR Race Weekend Central
Following this past weekend's race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the championship Chase tightened considerably between point leader Jeff Gordon and teammate Jimmie Johnson. But as Johnson stood spraying the bubbly in Victory Lane - winner of his second straight race in the playoffs - cleanup crews were busy picking up parts and pieces sprayed all over the racetrack, most of them belonging to a certain No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet. While the two Hendrick teammates prepared for the next battle in a long, hard-fought race to the title, their future teammate remained in possession of a sole, irrefutable fact reinforced from what would turn out to be a horrific Sunday ending. No question about it... the wheels have now come off Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s season. Literally.

Voice of Vito: 2007 the Year the Wheels Came Off the Gravy Train for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Following this past weekend’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the championship Chase tightened considerably between points leader Jeff Gordon and teammate Jimmie Johnson. But as Johnson stood spraying the bubbly in Victory Lane – winner of his second straight race in the playoffs – cleanup crews were busy picking up parts and pieces sprayed all over the racetrack, most of them belonging to a certain No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet. While the two Hendrick teammates prepared for the next battle in a long, hard-fought race to the title, their future teammate remained in possession of a sole, irrefutable fact reinforced from what would turn out to be a horrific Sunday ending. No question about it… the wheels have now come off Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s season.

Literally.

It took a while for this week’s bad luck to rear its ugly head for the No. 8 car. Heading into the final restart third with two laps to go, it appeared that the DE in DEI was finally going to have a chance at his first win since the Crown Royal 400 at Richmond… way back in June of 2006. As Junior hung the Budweiser Monte Carlo on the white line entering turn 1, it appeared as if he was going to clear Carl Edwards in front of him, clearing the way for at least a shot at catching Johnson.

At least, for a moment.

Prior to the final green/white/checkered finish, Junior had radioed his crew that something didn’t feel right in the back of his car. On lap 324, he asked his spotter to have Reed Sorenson check it out to see if the rear tires were squirming around; the way the car was moving, it felt as if he had broken an axle or something restraining the rear end, leaving him with a sensation similar to if he was driving a forklift. After getting the OK from Sorenson, Junior’s fateful next words to his spotter were:

“It may be OK at speed; we’ll find out here in a second.”

Well, find out he did.

Turns out that stripped out studs on the left-rear axle hub allowed one of those “real important parts” – as Ken Schrader fondly refers to them as – to liberate themselves from the back of the No. 8 car. That sent Junior spinning driver’s side first into the turn 2 wall, collecting Jamie McMurray in the process and putting a violent end to a victory charge that ended far too short of the checkered flag. It was once again a strange bit of irony, a microcosm of 2007 for NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver whose year has been a plethora of ups and downs – but as far as his on-track performance, those downs have far exceeded the ups.

The beginning of this season seems like light years ago, and it’s easy to forget this particular one started out with such promise for the No. 8 team, especially on the heels of making the Chase and finishing fifth in points the year before. However, the team’s future became irrevocably tainted during preseason testing in January, when it was revealed that things were less than rosy between Junior and a certain Mother Teresa of Mooresville. Five months of personal drama and theater unfolded, often overshadowing each event, with distraction after distraction arising surrounding whether or not Junior would re-sign with DEI… or resign from DEI. In the end, he chose the latter – causing an earthquake not easily absorbed amongst the NASCAR community, one that came packaged with an aftershock once Junior announced his signing with Hendrick Motorsports just one month later.

Looking back on those decisions, the reasoning to leave seemed to be largely based on personal friction between family; however, it clearly didn’t help that Junior’s on-track performance got busy producing some drama of its own, with Junior forced to the garage all too often with broken parts and pieces. Good runs at California and Texas (post-wreck) were stymied by engine failures unrelated to the new Chevrolet R-07 motor program that DEI had undertaken with RCR; at the time, the issue was traced to adapting to the new unleaded fuel NASCAR had gone to for the 2007 season.

But the DNF’s kept piling in, and the precarious position for Junior in the Nextel Cup standings began to worsen. In May, Junior lost his crew chief Tony Eury Jr. for six races, docked 100 points for a mounting bracket violation at the CoT race at Darlington. That loss would later prove significant; had Junior not been saddled with it, he would have entered the final race before the Chase at Richmond with a legitimate shot at catching Kevin Harvick for 12th, the final transfer spot. In the end, though, it would prove to be the engines – ones that more resembled claymores – which would ultimately prove to be the No. 8’s undoing. With six laps to go at Richmond, his motor let go, erasing any hope for a decent finish, a shot at a win, and the death knell for his Chase bid – putting an end to a period of the season he and his fans would soon enough forget.

Since then, while most “lame-duck” drivers would have been compelled to mail it in and ride out the rest of the year, Dale Jr. was as committed as ever to going out on a high note, and winning races with the team that bears his name. As the season wore on, he had a car capable of winning the Brickyard 400 and was running well at Watkins Glen when predictably, his engines failed. After going Joe Namath and predicting a win at Talladega a few weeks ago, another exploder was fastened in between the fenders of the No. 8 car; it was then when Eury Jr. packed up his things and headed for Hendrick Motorsports to get started on 2008.

NEFF: A NEW ERA BEGINS FOR DALE EARNHARDT JR.

That brings us back in the timeline to this past weekend at Atlanta, where the wheels fell off both literally and figuratively. The end of the race had shaped up to resemble a similar affair at the same event in 2004, when Junior was contending for the inaugural Nextel Cup. With 14 laps to go – and like he was this past Sunday, trying to reel in leader Johnson by passing Edwards – Junior tried to slide in front of Edwards on the backstretch. He didn’t quite have him cleared, and ended turning himself backwards, sliding across the track towards the inside wall. That wreck ended up costing Junior the championship that year; Sunday’s incident, merely a win.

But a win that at this point would probably feel like a championship, what with all Junior’s tried to overcome this year.

If only 2007 had held half the success of 2004, those six engine failures (to date) might be a little easier to swallow. Granted, he hasn’t had to endure being engulfed in flames as he did in an American Le Mans Series C5R Corvette, as he did in 2004, but at least he would have been to victory lane a couple of times by now. In 2004, he won six races, including the Daytona 500. This year, Junior’s best finish has proven to be a distant second to Kurt Busch at Pocono in August.

What a difference three years can make.

It’s enough to drive a man to cussin’; something he was fined 25 points for at Talladega in 2004. This year at that same race, he exited with his sixth engine related DNF of the season. That’s not exactly comforting, considering that from his rookie season of 2000 through last year, he suffered only one more engine failure than he has for 2007. This isn’t 1984, and while engine failures while not exactly a thing of the past, they aren’t necessarily commonplace as they were then; certainly not to the extent that he has had to endure this season.

Speaking of 1984, Junior spent the days following Atlanta in a retro-themed HMS Chevrolet, able to get a glimpse into the future and see some light at the end of the tunnel. Thankfully, that light isn’t from an oncoming train, but in the form of the Hendrick-prepared machine. Sporting a throwback motif to the original Hendrick All-Star Racing effort for Geoff Bodine, and a mighty big headache from Sunday’s wreck, Earnhardt turned in the seventh-fastest time of the session Monday morning, and eighth in the afternoon sessions for both Monday and Tuesday. Eury Jr., who took an early exit from DEI to begin work at Hendrick, is anxious to get next year started. The depth of engineering and resources he has to work with has him fired up for 2008, and the winning attitude that permeates the entire organization was deemed “contagious” by his driver.

Well, if it is as contagious as the strain of blown engines and failed parts has been for him this year at DEI, 2008 should go a long way in erasing Junior’s nightmare of a season that 2007 has been for both he and his legion of fans.

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About Vito Pugliese

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Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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