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Junior Heads To Desert Hoping To End Drought

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, April 16 2009
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has not had a Victory Lane celebration since this one at Michigan last June. He wants, needs, another and soon. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has not had a Victory Lane celebration since this one at Michigan last June. He wants, needs, another and soon. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)


By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Fort Worth, Texas – Dale Earnhardt Jr. went on vacation last weekend promising to “raise a little hell.” What could it hurt? Considering Junior’s lackluster start to the 2009 Sprint Cup season, perhaps some sort of personal exorcism was in order for NASCAR’s most scrutinized star.

“I don’t know. You tell me,” Junior joked before exiting Texas Motor Speedway.  Junior started and finished 20th in the Samsung 500, one lap down to Hendrick Motorsports teammate and race-winner Jeff Gordon.  A four-time series champion, Gordon scored his first victory on TMS’ 1.5-mile quadoval in his 17th attempt and also ended a career-worst 47-race winless streak. He was followed across the finish line by Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson, the three-time/reigning series champion.

Gordon and Johnson now stand 1-2 in the driver standings, separated by 162 points. Junior, meanwhile, is mired in 16th – 386 points off of Gordon’s pace through seven events. “We were running good all day. We were really fast,” said Junior, driver of the No. 88 AMP Energy/National Guard Chevrolet Impala SS. “We just started way back there and you can’t pass. You’ve got to start up front, or you won’t finish here.”

Earlier in the weekend, Junior detailed the mounting frustration he and embattled crew chief Tony Eury Jr. continue to experience with NASCAR’s Car of Today. Heading to Phoenix International Raceway for the Subway Fresh Fit 500 on Saturday night, Junior strongly suggested that he and his cousin need to re-invent their game plan for the typical race weekend. And that begins with qualifying.

“I think we have to be wise and open-minded to what our teammates are learning and what they’re doing to go fast,” Junior said. “You have to all the time, especially when they’re fast. Tony Jr., it’s his job to be smart enough to know what to do. He’s the crew chief and he’s the leader of the team in that essence. The one thing you must not do when you have teammates is let your ego stand in the way of understanding what they’re doing and how they’re making something work. I don’t think Tony Jr. does that.” 

For the record, Junior’s average qualifying position this season is 24.7; his average finishing position is 18.4. In comparison, Gordon’s average starting position is 9.4 and his average finishing position is 4.7. For Johnson, the numbers are 5.7 and 11.2, respectively. Junior’s most recent pole? April 4, 2008 at TMS…36 races ago. He has started no higher than 14th, and that was via a qualifying race at Daytona International Speedway.

“Yeah, we’ve actually been thinking about that, too,” said Junior, speaking of his qualifying slump. “We’ve been working toward showing up in qualifying trim. We used to show up in race trim and run a half-hour in that first Friday practice. And now we’re just going to show up in qualifying trim for a while and try to get better. Really, it’s so challenging and so hard to pass, especially at a place like this (intermediate layout). Starting up front helps the cars drive a lot better when they’re up in clean air. Our teammates always did it and I wondered why we never did. So we’re doing what they’re doing.”

Dale Jr.’s stats to-date are consistent in their mediocrity – zero poles, zero wins, zero top-fives and two top-10s, highlighted by an eighth-place finish at Martinsville Speedway. When he led Laps 253-258 at TMS, it marked only the second time Junior had raced from the point in 2009. Including the circuit he paced in the season-opening Daytona 500, Junior now has a total of seven laps-led. His 17th and most recent career victory, and only Cup win since beginning his tenure with HMS last year, was scored at Michigan Speedway on June 15. That was 28 races ago.

It only feels like forever to Junior Nation.

This is where Junior has a problem with NASCAR’s approach to the COT, the boxier, less-aerodynamically dependent silhouette which made its debut with a limited, 10-race schedule in 2007.

“This car has a lot of limitations on its ability to create downforce and for anyone to engineer any type of downforce into it,” said Junior, referring to NASCAR’s strict interpretation of the COT rulebook. “We haven’t made what I feel is an assertive effort to make the car a better race car and make it race better. I feel like it’s the same car we started with from the very beginning. That’s the same car that we’re running today, and so I feel like we could do a better job of being more creative and more open-minded toward producing a car that was going to race better.”

Junior noted that among the ideas being offered to create that elusive ”better racing” are increased front downforce, additional horsepower and/or bigger tires. “Everybody has such a different opinion about it that you can’t get agreement to start being more productive…toward having the most competitive and exciting racing we can have,” Junior said. “I would guarantee you that there’s not a driver or a guy that works with NASCAR that wouldn’t like the racing to be better. We all would.

“Is it even possible to create that? As long as we’re all racing with the knowledge and the experience and the technology we have, we’re all going to be pretty close. If we’re all pretty close – and you can’t really do anything to affect how the wind changes these cars and how people get aero-tight because that’s always going to be there – it’s going to be hard to pass a guy if you’re really close. I think you’re going to have that argument until the end of time.”

Meanwhile, Junior said the now infamous “milk and cookies” meeting team-owner Rick Hendrick called on March 25, four days before the No. 88 finished eighth at Martinsville, was a revelation. Among those offering opinions on the performances of Dale Jr. and Eury Jr. were Ken Howes, HMS’ vicepresident of competition; Brian Whitsell, team manager, and Doug Duchardt, vice president of development.

Hendrick emerged from that mid-week session to say he is “100 percent behind” Junior’s current group. “I have no intentions of making any changes,” Hendrick said. “I have all intentions of making it better. And I’ve got to believe in the next few weeks we are going to see some real success out of that crowd.” Dating to Geoffrey Bodine’s victory at Martinsville Speedway 25 years ago, Hendrick’s drivers have won eight Cup championships and 176 races. But again, only one by Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Hendrick reiterated that he believes Junior has embraced the constructive criticism, and intends to run with it…up front.

“I just wanted them to tell me their real thoughts and give it to me,” said Junior, whose candor has added to his status as NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver for six consecutive seasons.

“If it was a punch in the face, then that’s what it was,” Junior said. “I just wanted to hear it from them as to what they wanted me to do and what I could do better. I just want them to lead me, man. I want them to guide me and tell me when they think I’m doing the wrong thing.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, April 16 2009
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