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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Daytona Rally a Shot in the Dark?

It sure was an eventful Speedweeks for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

First, he was able to qualify his No. 88 AMP Energy Chevrolet on the outside of the front row two weekends ago. The following Saturday, his new entry in the Nationwide Series seemed to garner a lot of attention for some reason. The No. 7 GoDaddy Chevrolet piloted by Danica Patrick was the toast of the town, the biggest story of the DRIVE4COPD 300 that helped drive record ratings for the race. But once she crashed out, Earnhardt got busy stealing airtime himself, running up front and threatening to take home the win – until he executed a spot-on facsimile of his father’s blow-over, barrel-roll wreck back in 1997 on the backstretch.

Following that particular accident 13 years ago, the elder Earnhardt, after looking at his car from the ambulance (i.e., “amalance”) figured it would re-fire if attempted. Immediately, he asked the course worker to try to turn it over, and he was proven right – the crumpled black No. 3 came to life.

Unfortunately for Earnhardt Jr., the 2010 version of that wreck was not so lucky. After getting hit in the roof while upside down (also like his father, at Talladega in 1996), the No. 88 car skittered to the infield, buckled, tacoed, and now appears destined for the JR Motorsports scrap heap – or front lobby.

While unhurt, the wreck meant heading into Sunday, Daytona looked to be another inauspicious weekend for Earnhardt Jr. after a year filled with a career’s worth of them. At least this time, he was at least able to keep his sense of humor about things, asking if the wreck looked “awesome” and not wanting to blow his chance at producing epic carnage.

On Sunday, those similarities continued, but in a more positive fashion.

With 20 laps to go, Earnhardt sat in 22nd position and seemed little more than an afterthought in a race that had seen RCR teammates Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer dominating time at the front, leading a combined 78 laps. While Junior was able to get ahead for four laps early in the going, he drifted back and was relegated to mid-pack status for the majority of the race – not unlike his other three Hendrick teammates.

But even in recent lean years for Earnhardt – ones that were a far cry from the halcyon days of NAPA commercials with Michael Waltrip and the sea of red that would rise in honor of the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet as it came by the grandstand like a May Day parade – the safe money was always on him at a plate track. Last year, his best finish was a second at Talladega, one of only two top fives he would record all season. Of the just 146 laps Earnhardt led in 2009, 30 were at restrictor-plate tracks. Those are tame numbers, indeed, when judged against the clinic he used to put on at superspeedways, but for those who had written Junior off as little more than a marketing gimmick, Sunday’s display in the closing laps should serve well to remind others that he’s still plenty capable of performing.

Now, with all of the platitudes and waxing poetic over a late surge spurred largely by David Reutimann’s front bumper, let’s get down to brass tacks here.

The real test remains next Sunday at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. Not only is it the first true tryout of the “new” No. 88 team, with personnel, parts and pieces lifted from their consistently fast No. 5 stalemates, it is also the site of where the train began to derail in earnest last season, when he blew an engine with less than 50 laps to go.

That, of course, was preceded by last year’s disaster of a Daytona 500 that saw Earnhardt Jr. cruising through his pit stall, then either misjudging or taking a swipe at – your call – Brian Vickers, touching off a massive wreck that precipitated a miserable season that saw his crew chief cousin, Tony Eury Jr., put out to pasture in favor of Lance McGrew. While McGrew might grow on him (like his beard) as a crew chief, the get-to-know-you period was a bumpy one last year, one that witnessed a number of promising runs eliminated either through parts failures, accidents, or bad luck.

Granted, Roman philosopher Seneca once said, “Luck is where preparation meets opportunity.” However, when you’re in the midst of a genuine four-alarm fire, as the No. 88 team was last year, you have to look for any ray of hope possible.

This year, inspiration has come in the form of a double-overtime (sorry, I refuse to call it “Overdrive”) charge that many are likening to his late father’s final victory in 2000 at Talladega. Though Junior’s heroic advance was largely the result of a couple of do-overs and a monster push by Reutimann, he proved he still has the chops on the big tracks, putting his car in positions where you could barely place a piece of paper between – at 200 mph.

But while the No. 88 crew should be in better position to improve over last year’s struggles, questions still remain. Tops on the list is their communication between driver and crew chief, as well as their ability to right handling wrongs during a race.

During the Bud Shootout last Saturday, the No. 88 Impala was all over the track once again, struggling to an 11th-place finish – even after a last-lap crash involving six cars. The radio traffic heard throughout that debacle was familiar: an ill-handling car with little progress made in rectifying the maladies, even after a 10-minute break to work on his Chevy.

Thursday’s Daytona Duels saw Junior up front for 14 laps, only to drift back to a 21st-place run after contact with Vickers damaged his fenders. Sure, he was locked into the field with teammate Mark Martin, who pulled out of line on final lap, but the car wasn’t exactly a treat to drive for those 60 circuits.

Enter the Daytona 500.

Earnhardt was up front early, but again, it didn’t take long for him to start the steady decline that has become his calling card in races since the advent of the Car of Tomorrow. At one point during the first red flag to repair the Daytona Divot in turn 2, he was radioed by Darrell Waltrip from the FOX Sports booth. DW commented to Junior on how fast his car looked going down the backstretch. Waltrip’s statement was one of conviction; Junior’s, in response, was deadpan.

“…Are you serious?”

Crickets.

What followed for Earnhardt was another mid-pack run, although he was not much faster or slower than his Hendrick siblings, with Martin mired in traffic in 12th, Jimmie Johnson limping home with a broken axle in 35th and Jeff Gordon uncharacteristically losing it on the last lap, finishing in the 26th position.

So expect Junior’s improbable restart rally, one that generated twice as many headlines as Jamie McMurray’s equally stout penultimate-lap pass for the win, to be tempered in the coming weeks. The three true tests will come in rapid-fire succession; California, Las Vegas and Atlanta – and they’re tracks that Earnhardt Jr. has not run terribly great at in recent years. In fact, he’s been terrible at them.

Since 2005, he has posted an average finish of 24.3 at Fontana, including four finishes of 38th or worse – including a pair of 40th-place runs. Las Vegas has been even worse, with an average finish of 28.6, the lone bright spot being a second place effort in 2008. Atlanta just may be his sole saving grace – a 9.1 average since 2005, with a trio of thirds and a pair of 11th place runs to his credit.

Figures lie and liars figure, so make of those numbers what you will. Those who remain critical of Dale Earnhardt Jr. will point and say they are proof he is a one-trick pony who can still only get it done on plate tracks. Others still AMP’d up by a balls-out, last-lap charge that had him muscling his way to the front, looking more mad that he didn’t win than relieved that he finished second, will chalk this up to proof that their man is indeed back.

Well whatever the sentiment, know that handling, crew communication, and strategy will take the place of horsepower, bump-drafting and go-for-broke-restart romps for the next three weeks. Mind you, this challenge isn’t all on Junior’s shoulders; his team that has been fortified by the No. 5 in the offseason will be tasked with getting the car to the front as well. But in the end, Dale Jr. will be the one held accountable, as he is the one holding the wheel; and despite being four championships behind two of his teammates, he remains the name and face of the most important racing series in America.

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