This last Sunday, not only did Martinsville Speedway offer up a pretty good race, the fans in the grandstand and watching at home on television got to see an all-too-rare treat these days…the No. 88 car, driven by Dale Earnhardt Jr., ran up front for more than just one stay-out-while-everyone-pits lap. In fact, the green machine actually looked like it could challenge for a win that day.
You saw what it was like watching on television. Satellites linked up. Announcers were ecstatic. NASCAR execs held a rain dance in hopes of ending the race.
Junior led 90 laps at Martinsville, more than he’s led in all of the rest of the races combined this year—and it’s not even close. Only at Texas and Charlotte has he led laps in double digits.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s tenure at racing’s top organization has been more…what’s a nice word…disappointing than anyone could have predicted. Here was a driver who had won 17 races with an organization that wasn’t exactly keeping up with the big boys. It seemed obvious that his talent far outpaced the equipment he was piloting for his late father’s team. While he generally didn’t blame his father’s widow publicly, his fans did, and he did want to win races and titles, to make Junior Nation happy.
Few people faulted Junior even for leaving the racing team founded by his father. Most fans could accept it. He wasn’t running as well as he could be, Teresa wasn’t showing up at the track, and they needed a seven-post shaker rig. To the outsider it seemed as though Dale Earnhardt Inc. was using Junior as a sponsorship and money machine, and the widow who inherited it was content raking in the bucks. Why should he have stayed? Especially when every team in motorsports would not only pay large sums of money to have him, but give him top notch equipment for him to drive to victories?
No one in the motorsports press, to my knowledge, even came close to predicting that Junior would run more like Casey Mears than Jimmie Johnson with HMS. Darrell Waltrip was certain he would win at least four races in 2008. It was hard to dispute that. Hendrick had won half of the races in 2007. Surely a driver of Junior’s ability was going to snag a few, and certainly he was going to be a championship contender.
Yet here Little E sits today, 19th in the standings, out of the Chase for the third time in four years, running in the middle of the pack most weeks. At times he sounds frustrated and beaten, and tells his crew chief not to talk to him. The crew chief questions his motivation. Everything snowballs. No one is happy. When he takes the lead for 90 laps at Martinsville, it’s actually news, as opposed to Marcos Ambrose leading 40 laps in the same event. As if Junior was the actual Cinderella underdog. The team has fallen that far.
When Junior left Dale Earnhardt Inc. after Teresa refused to give in to a 51% ownership demand, it was a near-universal sentiment that his departure spelled the end for DEI. Actually, it was the 51% demand that did more damage. There was no way Teresa was going to just hand Junior the keys to a company that she helped build. Junior had to know that.
DEI did look like they were circling the drain for a while. Budweiser was gone, Martin Truex Jr. became the standard bearer without having established himself as a top driver, and the team merged with Ginn Racing, another fledgling organization, just to stay afloat.
But then DEI/Ginn hired Mark Martin to split driving duty with Aric Almirola. Mark Martin had been finishing second in NASCAR for so many years and had so few enemies in the sport that it was a perfect choice. At the time people believed he was “retiring” a la Bill Elliott, to race mid-pack once in a while and mentor the up-and-comers.
People were happy to see Martin still racing…and as it turned out, the guy could still wheel a racecar a little bit. He finished in the top 10 11 times in 24 events—and remember that this was for a team that was universally believed destined to become a museum in five years. It turned out that Teresa was a bit shrewder than everyone thought.
Fast forward to the end of 2008 and the merger with Chip Ganassi Racing. The move looked like an effort to save two struggling NASCAR teams in a weakening economy, which does not often work out well. Four teams between the two owners became defunct. Truex departed at the end of 2009, leaving Juan Pablo Montoya as the team’s only name driver.
Enter Jamie McMurray, who had just been thrown out on the street by NASCAR.
In response to loud complaints about Roush Racing placing five cars in the 10-car Chase in 2005…primarily the result of rule changes that benefited larger teams…NASCAR decided to implement what is now clearly an unenforceable four-car-per-team rule. (By the way, that was supposed to eventually become a three-car-per-team rule…anyone know what happened to that?) When Roush was forced to cut down to four cars, Jamie McMurray joined the ranks of the racing unemployed.
Fortunately for both McMurray and Earnhardt-Ganassi, McMurray had originally left Chip Ganassi Racing to join Jack Roush in 2006 on good terms, and he was hired back to drive the No. 1 car vacated by Martin Truex Jr.
32 races later, Jamie McMurray is a Daytona 500 champion, a Brickyard 400 champion, and a surprise underdog winner of three races in 2010. Even while falling short of making the Chase, he was talked about as a “spoiler” far more than Junior was. All while driving for the team that still bears the Earnhardt name, a team that’s far from danger of becoming a museum.
Funny how these things work isn’t it? It is ironic that after NASCAR implemented a rule that was probably intended to give a popular driver with a smaller team a boost, the only victimized driver became a Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 champion as a result. It’s almost straight out of a Joel Osteen monologue. Meanwhile, a popular and talented driver has gone to the top team in the sport and continues to run astoundingly mediocre with no answers.
Jamie McMurray, in his post-race interview following his Charlotte victory, actually placed thanking his sponsors second in importance to explaining to everyone how he had God to thank for how everything has worked out for him. In an age when NASCAR fans complain loudly about drivers being corporate robots, a driver no one expected to ever even be in victory lane again was being genuine, without screaming Neanderthal obscenities about a competitor for the crime of racing him hard. NASCAR, the sports world for that matter, needs more Jamie McMurrays. And if you believe in a Higher Power, maybe that’s why Jamie’s there.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jamie McMurray are both better drivers than they have been given credit for through much of their careers. But both of them seem to perform better with teams that aren’t at the top tier of the sport. Perhaps it’s lowered expectations, or there’s more to this chemistry angle than people credit.
What Junior and Jamie have in common is that they have both learned that the grass isn’t always greener with the moneybag outfits. Many of the free agent players who joined the Yankees this year have learned the same thing…when you have every edge you could ask for, anything less than total victory is considered failure. The Yankees spent more on Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez than the Texas Rangers spent on their entire team and still lost. In reality, it’s still pretty danged tough out there. The pressure to perform is witheringly overwhelming. Sometimes you’re better off having less.
I don’t fault Kasey Kahne for his recent decision, but it’s something he may learn in a couple of years.
* Does anyone think it’s strange that Jeff Gordon’s sponsor will be the “Drive To End Hunger”? It’s not exactly Wal-Mart or Pepsi on the name recognition scale…such a sponsor seems more suited for a single race deal in the Nationwide Series than for a multiple Cup champion. I suppose the salespeople at Hendrick are relieved that the No. 24 team won’t be associated with “butt paste”, but it’s still surprising. And only the AARP would have the chutzpah to claim that six million of the folks they represent are going hungry every night.
* As our own Vito Pugliese eloquently pointed out in the Thursday newsletter, the big loser in the RPM mess is A.J. Allmendinger. I’m sure some of you have noticed that the kid has finally been starting to have decent runs…and putting the No. 43 car up front no less, something that we haven’t seen frequently in a long, long time.
* As our newsletter reported yesterday, Shane Hmiel has been taken off of a ventilator, which is an improvement. Glad to see that. We all wish him well.
* Much is being made of there actually being three whole drivers left to battle for the championship with four races to go, as NASCAR breathes a huge sigh of relief for the perception that the profane Chase system is finally validated. But we still have Talladega this weekend, which is probably going to do severe damage to at least one driver’s chances.
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