CHARLOTTE _ His last top 10 came seven weeks ago at Bristol; it was only his fifth of the year – the fewest since his first full year in the Cup Series in 2000. To say Dale Earnhardt Jr. is frustrated is an understatement. In his second season with Hendrick Motorsports, Earnhardt Jr. has struggled mightily, failed to show improvement and has been subject to a crew chief change that clearly shook his confidence.
With teammates Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin smoking the competition this year, not to mention a stout showing by Jeff Gordon, Junior has been left wondering what went wrong and if it can be fixed. Those frustrations came to a head Thursday night after the No. 88 made its qualifying run. After running a lap of 189.913 mph in the evening’s practice session (good enough for 13th), Earnhardt Jr. looked for a top-10 starting spot in front of his hometown crowd. Instead, Junior’s pace fell off nearly three miles an hour, leaving him a dismal 39th, and even more frustrated.
Speaking with the media after a sponsorship announcement on Friday afternoon at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, the aggravation and disappointment were visible on his face.
“Last night we go out, we were top-15 in practice, and we went out to try and qualify and we were one of the worst cars here,” Junior said while looking at the ground. “We don’t know why and don’t have an explanation for it. All the other (Hendrick) cars qualified well, gripped well, backed their times up from practice and we didn’t even get close. We looked ridiculous last night. It’s really encouraging one day and the next day it’s equally discouraging and that gets really old. I’m about to the end of my rope on it.”
This year Earnhardt Jr. has struggled to maintain his grip on that rope. Criticisms for his aggressiveness in the season-opening Daytona 500 pitted some fans against him for one of the first times in his career. A blown engine the following week seemed to make things worse.
With little improvement and no end to the misery in sight, team owner Rick Hendrick made the decision to pull Earnhardt Jr.’s cousin Tony Eury Jr. off the pit box and give Lance McGrew a shot at turning things around. Since taking command of the team in Dover in May, Junior has one top-5 and two top-10s – hardly anything to write home about.
“I’ve been riding it out, but I think there comes a point when you don’t want to ride it out anymore,” the discouraged Earnhardt said. “You’ve just had enough. It’s been a long year. I really don’t want the year to be over with because I like going to the racetrack every week and racing. The last several – well, all year – it’s been so low, the highs have not been very high and the lows have been terribly low. It’s hard to want to get back up and try again the next week when you take such a beating, but I don’t know what else to do.”
As the season winds down, the frustration continues to mount, especially with performances like Thursday night. Unsure of what will be in store for next year, the sport’s most popular driver is unsure of what will fix the situation. Should Lance McGrew stay? Will there be another crew chief change? Even Earnhardt is uncertain what it will take to turn his misfortune around.
“I don’t know what’s next,” he said. “I was thinking about that last night. I don’t know what the logical next step would be. We seem to be getting better, but even getting better is not satisfying me at all.
“Whoever I work with needs to be a dictator,” Junior said of his crew chief. “The most success I had was with Tony (Eury) Sr. and you know how he runs his ship. I just don’t think I’m the guy to leave that decision up to because I would not make the right one. There’s a lot better people to make it, especially in the organization. There’s a lot of smart people around there. I’m just waiting on somebody to make the call, just put the damn team together and say this is what you’ve got and what you’re going to do next year. I’m just waiting on that to happen.”
Those aren’t the words of a man who sounds like he is sold on his current crew chief.
While he waits for decisions to be made, Junior shows up, climbs in the car and, as he put it, “if it goes fast, it goes fast.” Earnhardt Jr. has some tracks coming up that he has typically run well at – namely Talladega and Texas – but can the 35-year-old overcome his setbacks and frustrations, pick his head up and get the job done? That’s a question only Dale Earnhardt Jr. can answer and he needs to do it on the track.
UPDATE: Video of the Junior interview.