2008 Ride: No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
2008 Primary Sponsors: National Guard/AMP Energy Drink
2008 Owner: Rick Hendrick
2008 Crew Chief: Tony Eury Jr.
Stats: 36 races, 1 win, 10 top fives, 16 top 10s, 1 pole, 12th in points
Best Finish: First – Michigan (June)
High Point: Junior’s high point came early – and I mean early. Before the season officially started with the Daytona 500, he had two victories: one in the Budweiser Shootout, and one in his Gatorade Duel. Those performances made it clear that Junior was settling in at HMS from the get go. In fact, for the first quarter of the season, Earnhardt was the best of the Hendrick stable, regularly outperforming both Gordon and reigning champ Johnson. After a litany of strong finishes, his first points-paying win came at Michigan in June; ironically, that was also the end of his time as top man at HMS, as both Gordon and Johnson turned it around and outperformed the No. 88 down the stretch.
Low Point: The Chase. Despite going into the postseason seeded fourth, Earnhardt stumbled badly through the playoffs, finishing at the bottom of the barrel in 12th. Despite a sixth-place finish at Loudon to kick things off, team communication was so poor that team owner Rick Hendrick got on the radio at one point to remind Earnhardt to communicate the car, not his frustrations with crew chief cousin Tony Eury Jr. While the No. 88 team would record two more top-10 finishes in the Chase, including a second at Martinsville, they also finished 20th or worse five times in the last nine weeks.
Summary: Junior started strong, but couldn’t close the deal. In the first 10 races of the year, he had seven top-10 finishes, and only one performance worse than 15th; a 40th at Fontana following a crash with Casey Mears on a wet track that nobody should have been racing on in the first place. He was Hendrick’s best driver all spring; but once summer heated up, the No. 88 began to tail off. Between his win at Michigan and the start of the Chase, there were just two top 10s, but no finish worse than 24th. Then, the real collapse came when points counted the most. While Earnhardt often had a dominant car early in races, he also tended to fade late, as Eury couldn’t keep up with the adjustments to the car the way the competition did. Bottom line: Everybody expected the season to end the way it began, but Earnhardt didn’t live up to the monstrous expectations set by fans, media and even Junior himself for his first year with the strongest team in NASCAR.
Off-Track News: Junior expanded his resume to include entrepreneur, opening the popular Whisky River bar in trendy uptown Charlotte. The popular night spot includes live music and even a mechanical bull. Earnhardt also did extensive remodeling on his house – really extensive. It involved a wrecking ball which he reportedly operated himself.
2009 Outlook: Earnhardt can drive a Hendrick car – that he’s already proven. But to really capitalize on the caliber of equipment, something’s gotta give. It became clear during the second half of the season that something was lacking with the No. 88 team. While their teammates and competitors were able to adjust their cars to adapt to the track, Earnhardt and Co. would consistently start fast and fade; in the final 10 races of 2008, Earnhardt finished worse than he started nine times. That’s got to change if he’s to contend with the powerhouse teams in championship contention – including at least two of his own teammates.
Rising into title shape will be a tough task, considering with the addition of Mark Martin, Junior could well be fourth in the HMS pecking order. Housed with Junior’s No. 88, the 50-year-old veteran will be given every possible opportunity for one last championship attempt in the No. 5. With that in mind, it’s hard to see Earnhardt really improving on 2008 next year without a new crew chief calling the shots. As of right now, all things considered, his team is probably a 10th-12th-place organization once again – just as their 2008 finish indicates.
2006 Frontstretch Grade: A-
2007 Grade: D
2008 Grade: C+