When Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the Moon on July 21, 1969 he uttered the now famous phrase: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Now, it’s a quote that can easily be applied to Dale Earnhardt Jr. following Sunday’s Autism Speaks 400 at the Monster Mile. The small step took the form of a 12th-place finish, coming after a three-week stretch that saw Junior finish 27th (twice) and then 40th in the Coke 600 in a car so ill-handling not even the great Ricky Bobby, in his prime, could have wrestled it to any sort of decent performance.
But the giant leap for Junior comes in his dramatic relationship transition in the form of a crew chief. After announcing that Lance McGrew would assume duties atop the pit box at Pocono this weekend, the 41-year-old head wrench grasped the poison chalice – sorry, I meant picked up the reins – a week early following Brad Keselowski‘s DNQ. Presumably, this was a nice piece of subterfuge by Mr. H, allowing the “new guy” to slip into the (scalding) hot seat without too much (more) fanfare and hype. As McGrew commented post-race: “The powers that be decided to go ahead and give us a week head start.”
Yes, 12th place is still 12th place, you say, but it’s Junior’s best non-restrictor plate finish – he was second at ‘Dega – since he ran eighth at Martinsville at the end of March. After the race, NASCAR’s favorite son was optimistic, a tone not often heard from a man more subdued than successful as of late. “We ain’t clicked yet, but we’re definitely doing OK,” he explained. “Lance called a pretty good race, and I felt that he was saying all the right things and keeping me and the team on the same page.”
And staying on the same page, with unerring and relentless dedication, is exactly what it’s going to take, and then some, for Junior to turn around his 2009 season. Exiting Dover, Earnhardt is a whopping 215 markers out of Chase contention in 18th place. Not only does he need to run consistently in the top five between now and Richmond to close that deficit, he’s got to hope a good half-dozen of the drivers ahead of him in the standings go into one extended, prolonged summer stupor. Objectively, the gap looks like the sort of mountain you need crampons, ice picks, and supplementary oxygen to climb. In other words, barring a dramatic surge in results 2009 will not be the year Junior wins his first Sprint Cup crown. Instead, what happens to correct the floundering driver long-term, with a view towards a sustained run in 2010, might be more important than whether or not he squeaks in the 2009 Chase field.
McGrew addressed this very point in not so many words. “In this sport, this level of competition, we’re not going to go from where we’d been running to first,” he said. “That’s just not going to happen. This week, we needed to run 11th through 15th.” So, in that sense, 12th place and a bunch of laps running in the top five is now a solid, if unspectacular performance for Junior as opposed to the bitter disappointment it would cause for anyone else at HMS.
One change the listening Junior Nation couldn’t have missed was the radio chatter. For a start, it was much more business-like, devoid of the ceaseless back-and-forth banter that was the hallmark of the conversations between the cousins. McGrew picked up on this, noting: “I think the communication was fantastic.” Sure, they’ve still got a lot to learn about each other, but this was a positive start and just what Junior needed. Head honcho Hendrick was in agreement: “For the guys to work that well together this quick, I was real pleased. I listened to them all day, and the communication was extremely good.”
All last week, and indeed throughout his career, you’ve read about the enormous pressure that Junior is under; you only need to go to any NASCAR message board, blog or website you care to name to see the virulent and passionate opinions of Junior Nation that inflame and sustain said pressure. Life in the orbit of Planet Junior is turbulent, but no one knows this better than Dale Junior himself – and it’s a fact we often forget. Yes, there is pressure – oodles and oodles, in fact – but thousands of column inches (real and online) and the opinions of every NASCAR expert with a microphone aren’t going to inspire and motivate him to succeed. After all, if Junior doesn’t have the drive, no pun intended, to do it without the many voices already supporting him, he probably shouldn’t be in the sport. The simple fact is it was impossible to live up to the myth and legend his father created before Junior turned so much as a lap in Sprint Cup. If Junior finishes his career with 30 to 40 wins and a Cup Crown, the truth is that would do nicely: Very nicely, indeed.
Change is difficult, but change is necessary in every walk of life if you want to improve, grow, and succeed. Deep down, even if he does one day finally win it all, some part of Junior will wish it was with his lifelong buddy, Tony Eury. That, though, will be a nice problem to have as opposed to the solution of keeping them together in the face of continuous failure. “It is tough,” said Junior on the day the news broke. “I wanted it to work. I’m kinda disappointed we’re not going to be able to continue what we planned.” Right now, Junior only needs to glance at the utterly dominant Dover performance by three-time champion and teammate Jimmie Johnson to see where he needs to be and to know just how far away he is. That said, the box NASCAR has created around the new car, and the limited scope for changes – not to mention the fine form of four-time, Jimmie J, and the incomparable Martin – show that positive movement up the standings might be just around the corner. For this to happen, Junior will need to nurture a symbiotic relationship with his new head wrench. It’s something he picked up on after the 400 miles at the Monster Mile were in the books: “One of the things I liked about Lance is, I felt like I was in the pit box with him all day and I felt like he was riding with me all day. That was a good feeling. Hopefully, we can keep that up.”
This is, then, something of a crossroads in the career of the kid from Kannapolis, N.C. He has the full resources of the best team in the sport at his disposal. In fact, having chassis guru and engineer extraordinaire Rex Stump assigned to work on the No. 88 Chevy Impala illustrates just how much Mr. H wants Dale to succeed. If Junior can’t make it work now, he might never reach the very top of the pile. So optimism, tempered with reality and a constant craving to experiment and get better is the way forward. As Junior noted wryly, “I’ve told all my boys, we’re building Rome here, and it might take a while to get finished. But if everyone works hard, we’ll get it right. This was a good start for us.”
What a finish in the Nationwide Race
There’s nothing I hate more than accidentally finding out the result of a sporting event I’ve DVR’d to watch later. And that’s exactly what happened with the Nationwide race this weekend when I inadvertently learned Keselowski was the winner. When I finally got home I watched some of the race, and with a green-white checkered finish the No. 88 car was left in third behind a dominant Kyle Busch and hard-charging Joey Logano. I still couldn’t quite see how Brad was going to win it, but those questions were answered by turn 1 as the lime green GoDaddy Chevy dove to the inside, avoiding the tangle between Busch and Logano to cruise the final seven corners to the checkers. Good stuff from Keselowski, as the drum beat for a full-time Sprint Cup ride will continue despite his failure to qualify for the main event.
Boogity, Boogity; Bye, Bye NASCAR on FOX
OK, it’s far from perfect; but overall, NASCAR on FOX is a good, if not a Heluva Good! show (sorry, couldn’t resist). Despite his obvious bias to certain drivers, I’ll miss the avuncular DW and the excellent Mike Joy. There is much to like about FOX’s enthusiastic promotion of the sport, but the overreliance on stupid gimmicks like Digger end up leaving a bitter taste in the mouth for the viewer. The ticker giving out in the waning laps of the final race of FOX’s portion was, perhaps, the perfect indicator of how frustrating their season has been from a technical standpoint. How good, though, was it just to watch a great on-track duel between two men with five combined championships? After a stultifying middle 300 laps, that was just the tonic we needed.