NASCAR was on its way to being saved last Sunday. All was about to be right again in the world. Dale Earnhardt Jr. had bumped the sport’s villain Kyle Busch (Note to Sus…I mean readers: I having nothing against Kyle Busch and think it’s great he plays the bad guy) out of the way for the lead and was on his way to his first win in almost three years. That is until Kevin Harvick – the man who replaced Earnhardt’s father behind wheel of the No. 3 (now the No. 29) car – came out of nowhere yet again and passed him for the victory.
While he wasn’t able to seal the deal, Earnhardt’s second place finish at Martinsville has many thinking that 2011 is the year that Junior Nation can rejoice. After all, he is eighth in the standings one sixth of the way through the year and has run pretty well so far. He hasn’t finished worse than 12th since Daytona, and even there he looked like a threat to win until a late race accident eliminated him from contention. Could it be – after three seasons with Hendrick Motorsports where he has had more crew chief changes than wins – that Junior really is back? Don’t get excited just yet because no, he isn’t.
First things first, what does it exactly mean to say Earnhardt is back? Back from his first year at HMS, were he was very competitive early in the season that included two exhibition wins at Daytona and a triumph at Michigan? Or is he not back until he repeats the magic from 2003-2004 where he finished top 5 in points for consecutive seasons with a combined eight victories? As The Rock would say, it doesn’t matter what year, because Earnhardt hasn’t returned to any of them. His second place finish last week was his best in a non-restricted race since, ironically, Martinsville of 2008, but one top 5 isn’t enough reason to say anyone is back. Plus, Martinsville has become one of his stronger tracks in recent years. A top 5 at a track such as Fontana would have been much more convincing.
Some of you, especially the Junior fans, are probably saying, “Garrett, you idiot, it takes time. He is making baby steps!” That’s certainly possible and I’m not going to deny that. It does, however, seem odd than an established driver and team would need to make small gains over a long period of time. There is no set process in returning to old form. Harvick just last year was able to do a complete 180 on his previous season; baby steps aren’t always necessary. Plus we are just six races into the year; we can’t judge anyone yet.
It also seems ironic because didn’t it seem like we were hearing the same thing this part of last season? At the same point last year, he was sitting in the top 10 in points and still climbing. He made it as high as seventh in the standings after Fort Worth (which was race number eight last year) before the wheels fell off. By the time Homestead came around, Junior once again had another lackluster season at HMS, the team that was supposed to elevate him to a champion. Rick Hendrick made wholesale changes for him in the offseason, so is he is basically driving Jeff Gordon’s old car now. This includes a new crew chief in Steve Letarte and being in the same shop with five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson. These offseason modifications have essentially made this a make or break year for the 2004 Daytona 500 winner.
It’s an endless debate as to why Earnhardt has run so poorly for the past five plus years. Whether it was his Corvette wreck at Sears Point years ago, struggling to get a handle on the COT, not having Tony Eury Sr. to call the shots anymore, or lack of motivation, no one can truly know except for Earnhardt himself, and even he may not know. With that said, is one simple crew chief change really going to fix everything? Letarte is an upgrade from Eury and McGrew for sure and he will make Junior a top 15 driver (by top 15, I am referring to the end of the year, not currently). However, going back to earlier, a top 15 points finish won’t mean Junior is back. It will just mean he has improved. Keep in mind that Letarte is a guy who had limited success with one of the best drivers of all time.
Earnhardt himself says it is too early to declare that he is back. When asked after his runner up finish at Martinsville what it will take to convince critics he has returned, he stated he can’t; there is still work to be done.
“Well, I ain’t really proved it to myself yet,” he said. “I’ll let you know when I feel like I’m back, personally. Anyone that watched that race today knows that we weren’t a second-place race car or even a third-place race car all day. We never were up there to prove that point. So there’s no argument. We got some work to do still, and you know, we are faster, we are more competitive than last year. But we are still — we still got a little ways to go.”
Obviously, it’s easy to get overexcited; Earnhardt is by far the sport’s most popular driver and ratings will naturally increase if he is running well and winning. So far he has been running solid, but it won’t be enough to garner more viewership. What the sport needs is him winning multiple races a year and to be in championship contention just as he was seven years ago. Until then, he isn’t back, just improved. Like I said, the season is still young, so he could just as easily turn these top 10s into top 5s and even wins…or he could fade as he did last year. Either way, let’s wait until September to say that Junior is back.
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