Race Weekend Central

What’s Vexing Vito: For Dale Earnhardt Jr., the Light at the End of the Tunnel is No Longer an Oncoming Train

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.

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 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 [No.] 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 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 Earnhardt Jr.’s first win – Richmond, Va. – 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.

About the author

Content Director Beth heads up management of our 30-person staff, acting as Tom’s main assistant with technology and personnel while working as Frontstretch’s Truck Series expert. The author of Truckin’ Thursdays and the coordinator of the site’s pre and post-race coverage, she also runs a periodic charity column that spotlights when NASCAR gives back. A childhood transplant to Texas, Beth is a 15-year writing veteran who has contributed content to BRANDT and Athlon Sports, among other outlets.

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