Junior’s Farewell Tour Has Not Been Socko

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, August 5 2017

Dale Earnhardt Jr. admits that his final season as a full-time Cup driver has not been his best season. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Alan Marler)

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Appreci88tion NASCAR tour has barnstormed into Upstate New York as a cultural and commercial success, worthy of NASCAR’s perennial Most Popular Driver.

But away from the ever-upbeat Fan Fests, autograph sessions and guest appearances on QVC, Earnhardt’s final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series campaign has turned almost funereal. That certainly was the mood Saturday morning at Watkins Glen International, where Junior struggled through the opening practice for Sunday’s I LOVE NEW YORK 355 at The Glen and then declined to alibi a season that has become a nagging headache.

Recall that Junior attended this event last year as an excited spectator and cheerleader for his Hendrick Motorsports teammates while recuperating from the effects of a concussion suffered in July. It was at least the third known concussion he has sustained. Junior subsequently was medically cleared to return to competition on Dec. 8, 2016, in plenty of time for NASCAR’s season-opening Daytona 500 in February.

But Earnhardt shocked NASCAR Nation on April 25 with the announcement he would retire from the cockpit at the end of the 2017 Cup season, his 18th. Junior’s contract with Hendrick Motorsports, which he joined fulltime in 2008, will expire at season’s end.

“I feel like I was ready to go personally and physically,” Junior said during a somewhat somber news conference. “We have just not run good this year at the majority of the races. I don’t know that has anything to do with any individual. It’s just that you have good years

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has perennially been NASCAR’s most popular driver. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

and you have bad years. We just didn’t draw the right cards.  Just a lot of circumstances have led to the performance of our car this year that you can’t really put on one thing.”

Only five races remain for winless drivers like Junior to capture one of three remaining playoff berths. That’s Earnhardt’s challenge after 21 events as he sits 22nd overall in points, with no race or stage wins and no playoff points. His only top-five finish to-date was a fifth-place run on the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway oval in Fort Worth in early April. He has only four top-10 results compared to six DNFs. Of the 5,125 laps he has completed this season, Junior has led only 24. His average start is 15.5; his average finish is 21.2.

Average this. Average that. Just average. In 16 career starts at WGI, Dale Junior’s best finish to-date is third in 2003 in the No. 8 Budweiser Chevy fielded by Dale Earnhardt Inc. His average start at The Glen is 16.6; his average finish is 21.7.

“As far as just frustration on the track, you want to go out there and run good,” said Junior, driver of the 88 Axalta Chevrolet SS. “It isn’t where we want it to be. Today has been a struggle. We thought we had a great car at Sonoma (he finished sixth on the Northern California road-course on June 25th) coming in here.  The car is not very good off the truck. We’re making a ton of changes right now.”

Junior stood 26th on the speed chart at 122.611 mph after Saturday morning’s opening practice on the 2.45-mile/11-turn natural-terrain layout. That session was led by Kyle Busch and his No. 18 M&M’s Caramel Toyota Camry at 125.516 mph. Doing the math, Junior trailed Busch by 1.665-seconds.

“I don’t know what the (preseason) expectations were,” Junior said. “I really don’t know what people would assume what we’re capable of.  I personally thought we…I know what our potential is. You look at 2013, 14, 15…that is our potential. We’ve been progressing as a team for years all through that period. I expect us to be able to maintain that type of performance, and we haven’t been able to do it. I think that’s what we’re capable of, but for a lot of reasons we haven’t been able to put it together and have the speed we need in the cars.”

Junior, who is paired with crew chief Greg Ives, emerged from the second/final 50-minute practice 31st among 36 drivers on the chart at 121.965 mph.  That session was led by former protégé Brad Keselowski at 125.880 mph in the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford Fusion. Junior trailed “Bad Brad” by a massive 2.249-seconds heading into Sunday’s noontime qualifying session.

“The No. 42 (Kyle Larson) has been really strong all year,” said Junior, referring to Chip Ganassi Racing’s rising star. “The No. 78 (of point-leader/former protégé Martin Truex Jr.), they’re really strong _ they’re in a different world, man.  We want to go out and win races…it’s easy to say that but damn, we have a lot of speed to find. It isn’t like we’re going to show up and drive around those (teams).

 “We have some work to do before the end of the year if we want to feel like we can legitimately contend for a win. We had a little speed earlier in the season, I thought. We got through Texas and I felt like things are where they should be.  We’ve lost a little bit along the way at a few stops. Just losing a little bit here and there.  We haven’t really developed any speed through the season as we’ve progressed through the year. A lot of teams have and we’re sort of playing catch-up right now.”

In fact, Junior is the only HMS driver currently missing from the postseason picture. Seven-time/reigning Cup champ Jimmie Johnson is locked in via a series-tying best three wins in his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet SS; Kasey Kahne has punched his ticket via a victory in the No. 5 Rated Red Road to Race Day Chevy and Chase Elliott and the No. 24 SunEnergy 1 Chevy are 39 points in front of Clint Boywer’s No. 14 Five Star Urgent Care Ford on the cutoff line.

Johnson said Junior’s struggles have not become a water-cooler topic at Hendrick Motorsports world headquarters. “I know Dale is living his experience,” Johnson said, “but from where I sit and what I see going on, I just see race teams trying to win races as business as usual. I haven’t been a part of any conversations that focuses on that. I’m happy to see Dale so relaxed and enjoying himself.

“I still see a very competitive and hungry guy. He’s always done a very nice job in articulating his feelings and he’s certainly been open about his experiences this year. But inside the walls of Hendrick Motorsports, it’s business as usual. We’re not happy with where we are. We want to be dominating every race as a group. But it’s honestly business as usual there.

“We want to win. He wants to win and Greg wants to win. That team is preparing each and every week regardless of who was in it last year, to win. I think there’s more outside pressure and I think Dale is aware of his fan base and what’s written and what’s said maybe more than some other drivers. And there certainly has been pressure on that side. Inside of Hendrick Motorsports it’s just been let’s go win races. Nothing has changed there.”

Sunday’s race is scheduled for 90-laps/220.6-miles with stages ending on Lap 20 and Lap 40 as a prelude to a 50-lap final sprint. NBC Sports Network’s telecast will begin at 2:30 p.m. (EDT) with radio coverage on MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

Junior’s immediate future in the sport was clarified on July 25 when NBC Sports Group announced he would be joining the network’s NASCAR coverage team beginning in 2018. Junior reportedly will be utilized in a number of capacities on NBC’s coverage. In addition, the agreement with NBCUniversal allows Earnhardt a wide range of opportunities in the company’s media businesses.

A native of Kannapolis, N.C., Earnhardt has posted 26 career Cup Series victories, including the 2004 and 2014 Daytona 500s. His 26 victories tie him for 29th on NASCAR’s all-time list. Dale Earnhardt Sr. won 76 Cup races en route to his record-tying seven championships.

Hendrick Motorsports has selected journeyman Alex Bowman to replace Earnhardt as fulltime driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet next season. Bowman drove 10 races as a substitute for Earnhardt in 2016. The No. 88 will continue with financial support from Nationwide and Axalta, the team’s primary sponsors.

Junior, who married longtime girlfriend Amy Reimann during the holidays, turned pragmatic when asked a philosophical question about motivating his team toward his final checkered flag in November.

“We’ve had some pretty rough years, more difficult years than this season,” said Junior, who will turn 43 on Oct. 10. “At least this year, at times, we’ve had some speed. I’ve had seasons where we’ve had no speed. We ran bad and I finished bad. But at least at times this year there’s been some glimpse of potential. But I’m not going to be able to tell my team anything they don’t know. They understand the reality of the situation and where we are competition-wise and points-wise.

“The only thing I’ve told them is one of these races we’re going to show up and we might have what we need. And for us to be able to win that weekend, we need to be ready mentally. We can’t drag our feet into the racetrack on Friday and expect to be on our game on Sunday. We have to go into every race like this is going to be the week that we get it done. I think that’s the only attitude you can have if you expect to take advantage of an opportunity because one might fall in your lap and we just might find what we’re looking for before the season is over.

“Certainly if we miss the playoffs, we’re still going to try to win a race. We’re still going to show up and try to give it everything we’ve got. So, there’s nothing worse than leaving the racetrack feeling like you didn’t try your best or didn’t give everything you had. And I certainly ain’t going to finish my last season like that and carry that with me the rest of my life. So, we’re going to work hard all the way to the very end and hopefully we have something to smile about at some point before it’s over with.”



| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, August 5 2017
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