“Have you ever hit rock bottom?” Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) posed this question to Edward Norton’s character in Fight Club as he challenged Norton to break away from his empty boring life, strip to the bare bones and end up creating Joker-like social experiments and acts of terrorism. And while there were no face-disintegrating fights, acid-burnt tattoos or explosions in the No. 88 AMP Energy Chevy’s pits or garage stall after Saturday night’s Air Guard 400 at Richmond, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s 34th place, six laps down finish was a Fight Club act in its own right: rock bottom for a team that has been conspicuously disappointing since Junior joined the team in 2008.
“Virginia is for Lovers” is the longtime travel slogan of the state that Richmond International Raceway calls home – and Junior, paired with crew chief Lance McGrew were initially living that feeling as the No. 88 qualified ninth Friday for Saturday night’s race, a rare ray of sunshine in a long, fruitless summer stretch. But the duo knew that the race ahead would be a challenge, practicing only 38th and 27th-fastest in Friday’s two sessions. Out of Chase contention and with little to lose, McGrew and the AMP crew put an unconventional setup under Earnhardt Jr. going forward.
Junior Nation – the legion of fans that once was an ocean of red, but now has dwindled to look more like a Doppler Radar scattered with spread smudges of green and red pop-up storms in the grandstands – propped up Dale Jr.’s starting spot with the flimsy hope that maybe the three-time Richmond winner would have something for the rest of the field come Saturday’s green flag. Junior starting ninth caused this buzz. Ninth! That’s how bad his last four seasons have been.
Last week at Atlanta, Junior ran as high as the top 15, actually turning heads at one time from my vantage point in the AMS media center. But fate and inevitability struck the No. 88 yet again, relegating the beleaguered team to an irrelevant 22nd-place finish. Hopes were dashed yet again. The Doppler Radar cleared from the stands at AMS and flicked off the TVs at home, only to tune in again to the same mediocre hope at Richmond.
When the green flag fell Saturday night, eventual top-two finishers Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch began picking off spots faster than a 5-year-old picks at scabs and were contenders within the first 100 laps. Earnhardt Jr., optimistic before the race that his new setup would leave him in the lead pack, fell from ninth to 22nd in about nine laps, struggled outside the top 30 soon after that and settled into his resting spot around 35th by the race’s midpoint.
“I knew when the race started and the way it drove the first few laps, I knew we were probably going to be like that the rest of the night even though we were going to try to fix it,” Earnhardt Jr. told SceneDaily’s Bob Pockrass. “I knew the chances of us hitting on anything were real, real slim to zero.”
The team, however, did try to fix Junior’s extreme handling problems (particularly through turn 4) by adding multiple spring rubbers in the right rear, adjusting the track bar, even changing a shock. Late in the race and with no chance of a lead-lap finish, McGrew even pitted the No. 88 under green to make another major chassis adjustment.
The mad science project spawned the equivalent of blowing up the front porch with a K-Mart chemistry set, a million dollars’ worth of expenses at Richmond swirled down the drain like old milk. The only lesson learned? The new rear-spring package and front spindles on the No. 88 that night were as useful as overweight and overpriced Defensive Lineman Albert Haynesworth is to the Washington Redskins – Dale Jr.’s favorite NFL team.
There were two extremely telling signs of the No. 88’s demise (it could be Junior’s or McGrew’s or both) Saturday night. First, look at part of Junior’s quote: “I knew we were probably going to be like that the rest of the night even though we were going to try to fix it.” How much faith does he have left in McGrew and the AMP crew? After finishing fourth in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona in early July, he has only two top-20 finishes and has fallen from 11th to 19th in points. Almost every race in that stretch (and many others since McGrew took the helm of the No. 88 crew midway through 2009) followed the same pattern for the car’s handling: bad off the truck, OK early in the race, sagging at the midpoint, then nine-year old rental car-bad by the checkered flag. Junior’s relationships with both cousin and former crew chief Tony Eury Jr. and McGrew at HMS have been love-hate, but this festering lack of confidence and constant negative feedback loop means that Plan B-McGrew cannot fix Junior and will not last.
The second really bad sign for the No. 88 Saturday night was the lack of attention it drew. With ESPN locked-in to Chase mode, the talented reporters that traverse pit road never did more than mention once or twice that the No. 88 was running poorly. Never did we hear about the “experimental setup” until Pockrass slipped to the sullen, non-black and yellow Chase hat-wearing section of the garage and pit road to get that scoop. Junior’s season has become as irrelevant as Ben Affleck’s acting career – so much hype early, so much disappointment recently. And now the storyline is old.
It is one that germinated in 2008 when, despite the No. 88’s Chase berth and 16 top 10s, Earnhardt and Eury Jr. kept leading early and faltering late in races. Then the results sank to Titanic lows in 2009 (five top 10s in 36 races: three with Eury Jr. in 12 races, a 12th with Brian Whitesell in one race, and two in 23 races with McGrew) and similar results this year (five top 10s in 26 races, with the only top fives coming at Daytona). We’re all used to this pattern by now. In fact, had Junior finished 24th instead of an epically bad 34th, there would be no scoop on his struggles.
But the No. 88 did hit rock bottom Saturday. Dale Jr. finished behind the No. 13 Germain Racing Toyota of Casey Mears (21st, two laps down); the No. 36 TBR Chevy of Dave Blaney (30th, four laps down); the No. 83 Red Bull Racing Toyota of Mattias Ekstrom (31st, four laps down, Ekstrom’s first oval stock car start) and the No. 71 TRG Motorsports Chevy of Landon Cassill (33rd, five laps down). All of those, sans the No. 83, are start-and-park teams, but had sponsorship Saturday and managed to outrun a fully-funded Hendrick Motorsports car. Junior did not wreck in the race, cut a tire, or drop a cylinder: The No. 88 was simply outperformed. Rock. Hard. Cold. Bottom.
What comes next for Junior and McGrew these next 10 races? More experiments? That didn’t go so well on Saturday and surely does not impress his generous sponsors. A run at 13th in points or “Best of the Rest” status? That’s as likely as Virginia Tech winning the national title in college football this year. The cold and ugly truth is there may be nowhere to go moving forward. Just like he said a year ago, Earnhardt Jr. has to be at the end of his rope. Lance McGrew who, if you remember, won a Nationwide Series title with Brian Vickers in 1897 (actually 2003), has to be at his wit’s end, too. Junior fans, the decreasing number of No. 88 supporters that still sport his colors can only take so much more flack for wearing the hats and shirts of a 20th-place driver.
If these last 10 races for Earnhardt Jr. are as middling as both Junior and garage-mate Mark Martin’s have been all season long, the Nos. 5/88 shop on the Hendrick Motorsports property will figuratively look like the buildings that Tyler Durden (which Edward Norton had by then realized was himself the whole movie) watched explode in the closing scene of Fight Club. The only difference is, while the movie may have ended at that point, the No. 88 will have to do it all over again in 2011… with the same hopes and apprehensions.
Listen to Doug weekly on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury Speedshop racing show with host Captain Herb Emory each Saturday, from 12-1 p.m. (or whenever the Georgia Bulldogs are not playing) and daily as a traffic reporter on AM-750 and NOW 95.5 FM News/Talk WSB in Atlanta and on wsbradio.com. Doug also hosts podcasts on ChaseElliott.com and BillElliott.com and is co-track announcer at Gresham Motorsports Park in Jefferson, Ga.
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