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Woody: NASCAR – Do You Know Where Your Star Is?

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, September 19 2009
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Lance McGrew will be watching all the fun for the next 10 weeks. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Lance McGrew will be watching all the fun for the next 10 weeks. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Larry Woody | Senior Writer

He’s lean and lanky with scruffy chin-whiskers. Usually surrounded by a throng of panting fans. Answers to the name of “Junior.”

If you spot him, please call NASCAR immediately. It’s worried sick.

Even if Dale Earnhardt Jr., turns up, it’s too late in terms of the championship. The Chase kicks off Sunday at New Hampshire Speedway and the sport’s most popular driver won’t be part of it. Junior didn’t come close to making the 12-driver field. He was 21st after the 26-race “regular season.”

What makes Junior’s disappearing act all the more puzzling is the fact that all three of his Hendrick Motorspors teammates – Mark Mark, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon – are in the Chase.

Not only are all three in, but each is guaranteed to create a major buzz in coming weeks:

Can top-seeded Martin, having discovered new life after 50, win his first title after two decades of  frustration?

Can Johnson become the first driver in NASCAR history to win four straight championships?

Can Gordon, second only to Earnhardt in terms of celebrity, get his mojo back and win that elusive fifth title?

With all of these stories, plus other Chase intrigues, will there be any ink and air time left over for Junior?

Not unless he cranks it up, there won’t be. No driver in history has got more attention for less results than Earnhardt this season, but now its playoff time and he’s not a player.

The only was Junior can get much notice during the next 10 weeks is by the old-fashioned way: lead laps and win races. Based on his performance in the first 26 races that’s not likely to happen.

That’s not to say that Earnhardt’s popularity will decline. Race fans, unlike the fickle fans of other sports, tend to stand by their man through thick and thin. It doesn’t get much thinner than Junior’s season has been, yet the fans still adore him.

On one hand Junior’s calm amid the storm has been admirable. Despite the frustration he hasn’t blown a fuse, ranted and raved.

On the other hand, maybe he should. Some wonder if Junior isn’t taking his sour season a bit too nonchalantly.

I don’t think his composure equates to indifference. He may appear cool on the outside but I suspect that he’s seething on the inside.

The son of the Intimidator is aware of his place in the sport and the awesome legacy he is expected to uphold. He knows that so far he hasn’t been able to meet those great expectations. Nobody has to remind him.

It’s hard to understand what the problem has been this season. If Hendrick can provide his three other drivers with championship-caliber cars and support, why can’t Junior get the same? And if he’s not getting short-changed, then what’s the problem? I don’t think it’s a lack of desire and determination. So what is it?

Picking up the pace in the Chase would ease some of the disappointment of the season and set an optimistic tone for next year. Junior can’t win the championship but he still has a chance to make a positive statement.

Will he? Can he? That’s the question for the next 10 races.

– Larry Woody can be reached at lwoody@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, September 19 2009


  • yankeegranny says:

    I still look for Jr to win a race this year. If not, there is always next year. My husband is a Shrub fan, so both of our drivers are not in the chase. Guess we will cheer for Montoya, but if Jr and Shrub are knocked out of the race, we’ll flip over to the Steeler’s game.

  • Ginger says:

    As far as the chase is concerned, we don’t much care. Our star will still be on the track, and we will be watching and listening to him. We are the legions of Jr fans who support him regardless of where he finishes. You seem to forget that his CC had never led a COT team until mid-year. The other CCs at HMS have been at their posts for a long time. Lance will gain wisdom, the car will get better, and our star will rise again. Goooooo Jr.