*Did You Notice?* … Steve Letarte’s in a tricky situation when it comes to Dale Earnhardt, Jr.? For most of the year, the crew chief’s done a fantastic job in boosting the sport’s Most Popular Driver after two straight ugly seasons. But as we enter the homestretch, just three races until the Chase cutoff Junior is trying every which way to erase all the momentum he’s gained.
Make no mistake; since a solid sixth at Pocono in June, the No. 88 team has spent their summer learning every which way to skydive off a cliff. They have just one top-10 finish the last nine races, two runs of 30th or worse and have led just eight laps over that stretch. In fact, for the season Junior’s on track to lead less than 100 laps, by far his lowest total since a five-race Sprint Cup debut in 1999. Along the way, we’ve seen Earnhardt’s confidence take a hit, at one point blaming the tire compound at Loudon for struggles that weren’t there with those Goodyears come April, May, or June.
So what’s Letarte’s strategy through all this? Looking at the big picture and realizing how difficult it will be to knock Junior off his top-10 perch. Right now, he sits six points in front of Tony Stewart, having his own version of a self-destructive summer and hardly a guarantee to pass by the No. 88 once again before Richmond. The closest contenders to Earnhardt outside the top 10 are Bowyer, 30 points back and armed with the distraction of pending free agency; then Keselowski, a whopping 58 points back in 12th. Now _that’s_ a guy to be worried about… if there were two months left until the playoffs, as the No. 2 Dodge has been the hottest car on the circuit. But with three races left, even if Kes scores three straight top-3 finishes Earnhardt merely has to run 19th to stay ahead of his former protégé until the Chase. And Bowyer? All it would take under the same scenario is around a 10th-place finish.
Letarte knows that, and he also knows three of Junior’s best tracks lie ahead: Bristol, Atlanta, and Richmond. So his strategy for the last few weeks has literally been “points racing,” at some of Junior’s uglier racetracks like Indianapolis: play the track position game, keep preaching on the radio for the driver to play it safe and be content with oh, about a 15th-place finish or whatever they can get. That’s put them in position to make the postseason, the only thing that matters in this era and presumably the icing on the cake so that everyone can smile in front of the cameras while Earnhardt signs a long-term extension with Hendrick.
But it’s also a risky strategy play. Even with the “new” Bristol, you’re just one turn away from a wreck not of your making; Junior hasn’t been the victim in about a decade or so (almost impossible when it comes to Thunder Valley). And this upcoming stretch is also one of Bowyer’s best, too; last year, he was fourth, sixth, and seventh during these three races, has won at Richmond in the past plus has the confidence of landing on the right side of the Chase bubble several times. Bowyer also knows a postseason appearance could make or break his future in the sport; what sponsors remain need to know their driver is capable of making the postseason consistently. Missing two out of the last three years wouldn’t work.
Letarte is no doubt hoping the “back door” approach to making the Chase could leave them loose, entering the postseason out of the spotlight, with limited expectations and little to lose. But Earnhardt, unlike Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards and others doesn’t have the past history with his crew chief to know they can flip a switch. Add in virtually no experience contending late in races (apart from Martinsville in the Spring combined with a few bad fuel mileage endings) and there’s no way of knowing what happens to the No. 88 when everyone _else_ turns up the heat. That leaves Earnhardt as nothing more than a longshot for the title at best – especially with teammates Johnson and Jeff Gordon continuing to run circles around him.
You would think, after the ugliness of the past two seasons that postseason scenario would be enough to satisfy everyone involved: after all, Earnhardt ran 25th and 21st in points the last two seasons. But fan expectations were raised after the strong start to 2011, Junior sitting third in points after Pocono and seemingly an ironclad lock to contend for the title. Will it be a letdown for them, and will it be a letdown for Junior’s confidence to limp to the finish line? And if this strategy backfires, some unlucky DNF leaving Junior in a pressure situation to make the Chase at Richmond can the No. 88 dig deep despite some ugly-handling cars and make it through?
Plenty more questions that answers here. But hey, at least the No. 88 won’t enter the Fall with crew chief replacement rumors swirling… I guess that’s progress, right?
*Did You Notice?* … The “wild card” race has two sneaky contenders in it no one’s talking about? First off, there’s *A.J. Allmendinger,* quietly one of the more consistent drivers on the Cup circuit this season. Sitting 15th in points, he’s run eighth and eleventh the last two races and has an outside shot to win Atlanta; sixth there in the Spring of 2010, you never know in a year where we’ve already had five first-time winners.
Sitting there with an even better shot, believe it or not sits 52-year-old *Mark Martin.* In his final full-time Cup season (this time, we know it’s for real) Martin was fourth at Michigan and now sits 16th in points, just eight behind current “wild card” bubble driver Denny Hamlin. That means the No. 5 team is close enough to let it all hang it all out, take chances at a track like Bristol or Atlanta and see what happens. Not only do they have nothing to lose at this point, but considering Martin’s part-time Sprint Cup future it could be his last chance to sneak into Victory Lane – breaking Harry Gant’s record for oldest driver ever to win a Cup race. Don’t be surprised, considering the vast array of Hendrick resources that it’s Martin, not *Paul Menard,* *David Ragan* or current wild card holder *Denny Hamlin* holding that spot when the smoke clears.
Notice in this space we haven’t mentioned *Hamlin,* whose team seems destined to nosedive right out of the Chase. Switching to TRD engines was smart for him, a way to get ahead on next year but it also signals they’re thinking this year’s already a lost cause. Again, while they’ve stuck together all year the chemistry between Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford still seems irreparable after their Phoenix flap that helped virtually hand the trophy to the No. 48. Collapses like that can take years for an individual person to get over; keeping both people together in the process? It often never meshes the same again…
*Did You Notice?*… Quick hits before we go…
– Kyle Busch’s license suspension, just 45 days for going 128 mph in a 45-mph zone is a little more than a slap on the wrist. But I’m fine with that; again, he’s a _race car driver,_ so getting cited for speeding is the one “crime” you’d expect from that profession over the course of a lifetime. So many _what if_ scenarios have been brought up, but guess what? They didn’t happen. Everyone is still alive and well, plus Busch will be teaching teens not to speed through a 30-hour community service program. What more do you want?
– Who knew Brian Pattie was that much of a cog in Juan Pablo Montoya’s wheel? The two seemed to argue a lot, but boy since he left that No. 42 has fallen off a cliff.
– Some of the nicest news to come out this week: the addition of an investor at Germain Racing (Germain-Osceola) along with a five-race sponsor for Leavine Racing’s single-car effort driven by David Starr. For once, an injection of new money into the sport that doesn’t land in the same five places…
– Paging Greg Zipadelli. Greg Zipadelli, to the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Chevy… Smoke’s losing his temper, and you’re the only one out there who can make it better. I don’t see Darian Grubb really calming Tony much…
– Scott Speed in the No. 46? With years until the Red Bull court case gets resolved – and a new baby on the way – guess someone’s gotta make a living with that start-and-park income…
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