For those who are casual fans of the sport, when pressed there’s probably about five things people remember so far about the 2012 season. They are (in no particular order):
1) Jet Dryer Fire (and a whole lot of Tide to clean it up)
2) Danica. NASCAR. NASDanica. Danicar. Dani…
3) Matt Kenseth won the Daytona 500 and did a bangup job on Jay Leno afterwards
4) Did Jimmie Johnson really cheat? NASCAR seems to think so.
5) Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is threatening to win a race.
Thought number five is a new one, overshadowing even Tony Stewart’s impressive accomplishment: six wins in his last 13 NASCAR starts. But Smoke, despite all that championship cache – and he’s looking just as good for 2012 after Las Vegas – doesn’t add to the fan base by millions through sniffs of Victory Lane. That achievement is reserved for one man and one man only, the son of the Intimidator whose winless streak now stands at a rather Intimidating 132 events. Quick refresher: the last time Dale Jr. won, George W. Bush was still President, Aaron Rodgers was just some kid on the bench in Green Bay and Lady Gaga was the name you gave that crazy woman yelling at the DMV.
Yes, it’s been a drought of epic proportions. But for the second time in three races, a case could be made that Earnhardt had a chance to end it. Leading 70 of the first 73 laps, up until David Reutimann’s crash the No. 88 was out front more in one race than it was all of last year _combined._ The handling of his Chevrolet did fizzle back in traffic, leaving him no better than a top-10 finisher at race’s end but the speed to contend, with the right track position was clearly there. Add in a second-place run at Daytona, Earnhardt’s _almost_ moment to start 2012 and what you have is a driver sitting fourth in points. That’s not just his best start with Hendrick Motorsports; it’s his best _ever_ on the Sprint Cup circuit, made all the more impressive considering the three HMS teammates are nowhere to be found inside the Sprint Cup top 10.
“Hopefully, we can keep bringing cars like that to the race track and we will get some opportunities to win,” he said after Vegas. “If we keep doing that every week, you know we are going to be right there.”
What’s next, speaking of opportunities are two races in the next three weeks (Bristol and Martinsville) that play to one of Earnhardt’s strengths: short track racing. But as the chances – and the expectations – ramp up, crew chief Steve Letarte must be mindful of what he’s managed so well the last year-plus: his driver’s mental state. For as much as there’s enough here to make casual fans take notice, Earnhardt is once again approaching a hump that he’s failed to get over several times in the past – a hump that’s wilted everyone’s patience. And what happens when you tire out, near the top of the hill only to find out you can’t keep climbing?
Frustration. It’s why I’m not completely sold on this Junior renaissance yet, considering the type of emotional kickback that surfaced even Sunday, both on the track and off. 53-year-old Mark Martin served as the battering ram of that anger, contact between he and Junior sending the No. 55 into the wall and ruining what had until that point been a solid day for that Toyota program.
“I felt like I was pretty frustrated at the moment before that happened,” Earnhardt explained, claiming Martin cut him off to cause that response. “That just kind of really sent me over the edge there. We just want to win really bad and felt like we should have finished better than we did today.”
The pressure to win, personified which turned a minor incident into a major one. Rightly or wrongly, Earnhardt said he had only himself to blame for stalling out, an eighth-to-tenth place car down the stretch a result of his own inefficiency in feeling out his car’s handling problems. “Our car was tight at the start of the race, we were fast and I knew before the end of the race we were going to have to free my car up and I never let Steve (Letarte) do it,” he hypothesized. “I just never told him enough and never gave him enough freedom today that he felt like he needed to free the car up. When we got in traffic the car was just really tight and it’s a lesson that you learn a long, long time ago and we just didn’t do a good job of working on the car during the race.”
It was a nice way to back up Letarte … but still; the head wrench has to be careful. We saw the same types of reactions in 2008, when things were still good but Earnhardt and Tony Eury, Jr. just couldn’t quite get over the hump. We saw it in 2010, when Lance McGrew and Junior had at one point put themselves in position to make the Chase only to falter. Remember that season? Earnhardt started off with a runner-up position in the season-opening Daytona 500, too.
Up to this point, everything about this crew chief/driver relationship here has differed from past divorces. Letarte can cheerlead his driver like no other, pushing the right buttons inside Earnhardt’s head while making that key adjustment which typically has the car at its best during the final 50 laps of the race. What they have done so far is commendable… but the real battle for relevance starts now. Earnhardt making the Chase with a handful of top-5 and top-10 finishes is like the boy crying wolf; we saw that, watched it in 2011 without Earnhardt ever becoming a serious title contender. The status quo for 2012 won’t convince anyone a breakout of this slump is in the making; the duo has to push forward. So far, they’ve done that in the points and by leading laps, which is something they weren’t able to do last year – resulting in the driver’s lowest total in that department since 1999.
But of all those small steps, the monkey of Victory Lane remains the biggest one. It’s a hurdle you can’t clear until there’s confidence on all ends you can close the deal, optimism after every “near-miss.” After six runner-up finishes, a collection of bridesmaid prizes since ’08 it’s easy for Earnhardt to develop seeds of doubt; the key will be to keep them from festering.
There’s nothing the sport would like better than for its Tiger Woods to find his way. Earnhardt, in some ways appears closer than ever before; but after four years of trying, coming this close isn’t going to cut it for long.