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Junior Seeks A Return To Better Times

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, July 16 2011

Dale Earnhardt Jr. needs to stem the bleeding and soon. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

By Mike Harris | Senior Writer

Loudon, NH – Dale Earnhardt Jr. is one of those guys who is a catalyst for emotion for nearly everyone around him.

Despite years without much on-track success, the 36-year-old Hendrick Motorsports driver remains the most popular driver in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series, selling more souvenirs than any other active driver and being treated like a rock star wherever he goes.

On the other hand, like his late father, Junior is also probably the most hated driver in NASCAR by those who are not fans of the No. 88 Chevrolet.

These days, he’s less worried about ending his three-year winless streak than about being competitive – and after a good early-season run, Junior has hit a rough patch.

In the first 14 races of the season, Earnhardt had only three finishes lower than 12th and his worst finish was 24th in the opener at Daytona. In the last four races, though, he has finished 21st, 41st, 19th and 30th.

After a sixth-place finish last month at Michigan, Earnhardt was a solid third in the standings, just 10 points behind then-leader Carl Edwards. Heading into Sunday’s Lenox Industrial Tools 301, Junior has fallen to eighth, 76 points behind current leader Kyle Busch.

Worse, Earnhardt is way too close for comfort to the 10th and final qualifying spot for the postseason Chase.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. says getting back in a groove shouldn't be "too difficult". (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

But Earnhardt showed no anxiety while talking with the media Friday – at first.

“I think the best thing we can do is stay positive,’’ he said. “We run good at New Hampshire. We have been kind of eying this weekend and looking forward to it.

“We wanted to come in here with a lot of confidence that we belong in the Chase, that we belong up front in the top-five and the top-10 and try to make that happen this weekend and try to race up there well.”

Asked if his confidence has taken a hit in the last four races, Earnhardt said, “No, not really. It has just been really frustrating. Running poorly is not what you want to be doing. You just have to keep going to the race track.

“We’ve got good cars. We’ve got a really, really good team. We should be running better than we have been the last couple of weeks and we know it. We are just going to try and work really hard to get back where we were earlier in the season. It shouldn’t be that difficult.”

But Junior wasn’t particularly happy when the questioning turned to going for wins as opposed to racing for points.

With the current Chase rules, positions 11 and 12 in the 10-race postseason will go to drivers with the most victories who are in the top 20 in points, but not among the top 10 after the 26th race of the season.

Since he hasn’t won since the Michigan race in June 2008, Earnhardt would have to get red hot in the next 10 races to be eligible for that option. It’s more likely he needs to stay in the top 10 to make the Chase.

“If I could win a race, I’d win a race,’’ Earnhardt said. “You go out every week, you show up to run as well as you can.”

Someone asked, “How do you balance going for the win (against racing for points)?

“I don’t worry about that,’’ he replied. “I just go race.’’

As bad as Earnhardt needs a good finish right now, he’s pretty happy to be racing this week on the one-mile oval in Southern New Hampshire.

The Loudon track has been a good one for Earnhardt. He has never won here, but does have six top-fives and 10 top-10s in 23 starts, including finished of fourth and eighth last year..

“I like the race track,’’ Earnhardt explained. “We’ve always ran pretty good. I’ve been looking forward to coming with my new crew chief. We ran really good here last year with Lance (McGrew) and those guys. I’m curious as to how the car will drive or how different it might be, good or bad with Steve (Letarte).”

Whatever it takes, Earnhardt needs a good race Sunday – to quiet the critics, give his fans a lift and to give his confidence the boost it needs for the run to the Chase.

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, July 16 2011
One Comment

One Comment »

  • T.L. Headley says:

    As with most of the “media’s” stories about the past four weeks, this writer seems to ignore the simple fact that in all but one of those races Dale Jr. was running well.
    I am a Dale Jr. fan and I am, for one, am not worried about whether Dale Jr. makes the Chase. He is running well and the partnership with Steve Letarte is clearly working.
    Let’s go back a moment to the beginning of the year — few were even suggesting that it was reasonable to expect the new partnership of Earnhardt and Letarte to pay off with a trip to the Chase in the first year. Most were saying it was more reasonable to expect an improvement this year as they got to know each other. Many had simply written off Dale Jr. as “past it,” questioning whether any crew chief or crew change would fix the problems. It was “all in Dale Jr.’s head,” they said.
    The truth is that Dale Jr. is still a good driver. Letarte is an excellent crew chief and the change is working. The only real chink in the armor is that they aren’t qualifying well, which puts them back in the pack early.
    At Daytona, Dale seems to have forgotten something important — the ONLY way to win is to get up front and stay up front. You can’t fall to the back and charge through traffic. It never works and invariably the people trying to do so either a.) cause the big wreck and manage to skim through it by the skin of their teeth, or more likely b.) find themselves caught up in the big wreck they created and find themselves stuck in a 40th place finish.
    Sonoma is a crap shoot for almost anyone. Let’s look at this past four race stint and give Dale Jr. a 15th place finish and he remains in the Top 5. End of story.