It’s Go Time For A Batch Of Spring Flingers
By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
Hope sprung like crazy for Dale Earnhardt Jr. this past spring. He was racking up top-12s, top-10s and top-fives in bunches. After finishing second at Kansas in early June, he cruised into the summer third in the point standings and with a Chase berth packaged with a nice satin bow.
Or so it seemed.
Once in the summer, six races came and went and when they went, so did everything that Earnhardt had accomplished in the early season. Those six races failed to produce a single top-12 and when Earnhardt left Indianapolis after finishing 16th, he was 10th in points and looking ready to drop a whole lot further before the start of the playoffs.
Clearly, the most popular driver in America needed to turn things around and quick.
Then came last weekend’s race at Pocono. Earnhardt ended his top-10 drought with a ninth -lace finish. But, had he hit the brakes in his skid toward a 2011 train-wreck season?
Maybe, he said after Pocono.
We’ll all know more after this weekend’s events at the Watkins Glen road course.
Ditto for a couple of other drivers whose seemingly care-free strolls to the Chase were roughed up over
Drivers like Clint Bowyer, Mark Martin and Juan Pablo Montoya. For them, they either leave The Glen with top-12 finishes – if not victories – or they leave with eyes being refocused to February of 2012 rather than November of 2011.
There are five races to go before the Chase starts. And with no Wild Card-earning victories on the season, Hendrick Motorsports’ Earnhardt looked cooked a week ago. Now, a good finish at the Glen turns the heat down considerably. Thanks to Pocono.
“Yeah,” he said going triangle racing,”our car had speed, I was like, ‘Heck yeah man.’ I drove up to fifth there one time and was racing around the top four, that’s how we were running at the start of the year. I’m kind of happy about that. Hopefully we’ve got it figured out.”
Bowyer, who won two races during the 2010 Chase, looked like he had carried the momentum he had earned in doing that over to the 2011 season. During the first 16 races of the year year, he had climbed as high as seventh in points and was sitting at eighth after finishing fourth at Infineon Raceway in late June.
But then he began to tumble. He is 12th in points heading to Watkins Glen but is coming off a better-than-it-looked 18th-place showing at Pocono. Another top-10 at this weekend’s road course and he could be back in the hunt.
“I think I’ve gotten a lot better at road courses,” the Richard Childress Racing driver said. “I’m looking forward to Watkins Glen. I think we can get another top 10 if not, a top-five finish there.”
Martin has been all over the performance charts this year. Currently 15th, the has had Hendrick cars and finishes which indicate that 15th is about where he should be. He has finished eighth and 13th the last two races, but Martin knows exactly what he needs to do in the next five races. And that is not finish 15th.
“We have to win,” Martin, whose full-time Cup career may end after the current season, said. “And
really, with Brad (Keselowski) getting his second win at Pocono last weekend, we need to win twice. Climbing to 10th in points would be ideal, but we have a big deficit to make up and that’s going to be very difficult to do with this point system. Is it possible? Yes. But it’s not going to be easy. We’ve performed better over the last few weeks and have gotten better finishes, but to get inside the top 10 we’re going to need solid top-10 and even top-five finishes every week.”
Montoya, who was driving well enough early in the season to be in the top 10 in points through the first eight races, is in a heck of a spot today.
The Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver is 21st in the driver standings so not only is he dead meat in terms of getting into the Chase on points, he would also be in Wild Card trouble even if he had a victory – which he doesn’t.
All hopes – that’s all hopes, folks – for 2011 depend on winning a race and the best shot he has at that is Sunday at The Glen road course.
“Going to Watkins Glen should be exciting,” he said this week. “I was pretty happy that we ran much better at Infineon, where we normally struggle. So I think that should be a good place for us. The Target team needs a good finish right now, we’ve been struggling and a win there would definitely go a long way.”
Bowyer and Montoya are top free agents. That will put some eyes on them the next couple weeks. But most eyes, as usual, will be on Earnhardt.
Junior can take big steps toward shaking his image as a disappointment the next five races, or he can strengthen that image. It sounds as though he thinks the former will begin on Sunday even though he has an average finishing position of 23rd at The Glen.
“I think I can do better at the Glen because it’s got some straightaways on it. It’s a little easier; it’s not quite as technical of a road course. I’ve got more confidence going in there and I’ll try to put up a better result.”
– Jim Pedley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.orgOne Comment