NASCAR: Junior

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 20, 2009

By Jenna Fryer
Associated Press
CHARLOTTE ó Nobody is trying to sugarcoat the trainwreck that is Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s season.
He knows it’s bad. His car owner knows it’s bad. All of NASCAR knows it’s bad.
Only nobody knows how to fix it.
And as the most prolific pairing in NASCAR history teeters on the brink of disaster, car owner Rick Hendrick is in a race to figure out what to do with his No. 88 team before Earnhardt loses what’s left of his crumbling confidence.
“I’m as frustrated as those guys are,” Hendrick said of Earnhardt’s team. “But I can tell you this … I’m as committed as I know how to be, and we’re all committed to each other. We’re just going to keep digging.”
It’s bizarre how bad things are for Earnhardt, who is stuck in a maddening slide at the same time his Hendrick Motorsports teammates hold down the top three spots in the Sprint Cup standings.
When he runs well, it’s still not good enough to compete with points leader Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin or Jeff Gordon. And when he runs bad, it’s really, really bad. Throw in all of the bad luck and broken parts, and it’s a wonder he’s still able to show up at the race track each weekend.
Earnhardt did everything asked of him last weekend at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, although it seemed as if NASCAR’s most popular driver was at times just going through the motions. He thought he had a decent race car, but instead qualified a humiliating 39th while his teammates all grabbed spots inside the top nine.
It might as well have been the straw the broke the camel’s back.
Earnhardt appeared defeated the rest of the weekend and said little to contradict that assessment:
Is he trying to change himself? “I don’t even know what I used to do.”
Is he second-guessing everything? “No. I’ve passed all of that. I’m over it, to be honest with you.”
How does he keep his head up? “I don’t know. We just need to run better. It’s not happening.”
Does he feel like he’s in a tough spot? “I feel like I’m in … I feel like I don’t have any … I feel like I don’t have any control, you know?”
He chose his words carefully, but was unable to hide the mounting frustration of a disastrous second season driving for the best organization in NASCAR. He’s won just one race since joining Hendrick Motorsports, in June of 2008, and has just five top-10 finishes all season.
Earnhardt is 22nd in the standings, hasn’t finished higher than 17th in the past seven races, and an electrical problem Saturday night at Lowe’s sent him to the garage early and a 38th-place finish.
As Hendrick later celebrated Johnson’s third victory in five Chase for the Sprint Cup championship races, he was asked about another night of struggles for his superstar driver. He’d met with Earnhardt and interim crew chief Lance McGrew for a pre-race pep talk in which he reconfirmed his commitment to turning the No. 88 team around.
“I told them this can’t last. We’ve got too many smart people over there to not fix it,” Hendrick said. “It’s just so much pressure with (his teammates) running like they’re running, and you’ve got three cars that are up in the points like that. We don’t hide from it, we just know we’ve just got to work harder. It’s eating him up.
“But we’re going to get it. I just hope it’s soon.”
The struggles have led many to question Earnhardt’s talent level, after all, if he can’t perform in Hendrick equipment, he can’t be all that good, right?
Longtime family friend Richard Childress, who fielded championship-winning cars for Earnhardt’s father, said it’s just not that simple.
“Everybody’s got their expectations so high, and when you don’t fulfill those expectations, people think you’re not there,” Childress said. “But Junior can still drive a race car. He can compete. He can win. And he will win a championship someday.
Earnhardt is tired of all the lows, and complained his highs aren’t even all that high anymore. He gave McGrew a resounding endorsement to stay on in 2010 just three weeks ago, but is now disqualifying himself as capable of knowing what’s best for his race team.