Amid the reports of high gas prices, high unemployment and high deficits, the nation can use some good news. It doesn’t matter if you live in this great nation we call the U.S. of A., “NASCAR Nation” or “Junior Nation,” we can all use a feel good story, and a return to contending form by one Ralph Dale Earnhardt Jr. could fill the bill quite well, thank you very much.
The facts won’t be ignored: it’s a poorly kept secret Junebug hasn’t seen Victory Lane in Sprint Cup competition since June 15, 2008, now over 100 races ago. Of course, you haters will be quick to point out that win was fuel strategy win at Michigan International Speedway (as if somehow that is less of a win). Prior to that, his last win was at Richmond in 2006. What’s more he’s come off of what can only be described as disastrous runs in each of the last two seasons, finishing 25th in the 2009 season and 21st last year. These are not results befitting of NASCAR’s most popular driver, are certainly not what he nor car owner Rick Hendrick envisioned when Earnhardt left DEI at the conclusion of 2007.
One good race, and you’re lucky. Two good finishes back-to-back could still qualify as a mirage- but five top 10s and third in points after eight races? There may be reasons for Junior’s legion of fans to believe he is relevant once again.
- A Corporate Shake-up- Owner Rick Hendrick pledged a commitment to make things better with all the resources of the tightest operation in the business. Crew chiefs were moved, shops were re-arranged, and what was broke got some fixin’. When you have NASCAR’s kinder, gentler version of George Steinbrenner behind you, stuff gets done.
- Crew Chief Chemistry- Let there be no misunderstanding, Earnhardt’s problems deeper than just the crew chief, but there’s no denying he’s struggled to find the mojo since the days of Tony Eury Sr. In recent years, Junior would bicker with cousin Tony Eury Jr. like an old lady, and the relationship with Lance McGrew got just plain ugly in 2010. Enter Steve Letarte, former pit boss for Jeff Gordon. The radio communication is much better, and you can’t help but notice the 88 car is spending far more time on the track, and less in the walls, or the garage for the matter. In the end, it means…
- A New Attitude- There have been times when his post-race (or post-accident) interviews were just downright painful to listen to. Granted, Junior will never go down in history as “The Great Communicator,” but all the dejection is gone. Even better for his fans is the fact that he says he can do better, not that his present performance is anything to complain about.
Earnhardt is looking forward. "We’re doing better than we did last year and we’ve got a couple more gains to make on our finishing positions and I think across the board could do just a little bit better, performance-wise. And we’re working hard and trying to keep up our momentum and trying to improve. I think we’ve got all the pieces of the puzzle and getting them in the right place."
A more desperate Junior would have punted Harvick at Martinsville, or thrown Jimmie under the bus at Talladega; but he didn’t. If his team builds him good cars, if Letarte keeps making the right calls, and Earnhardt keeps his head right, the wins will come. Let’s not forget this is a two-time Busch Series champion, and a winner of 18 cup races, to go with two top-five finishes in the season standings earlier last decade. That next win could come soon.
This week, the NASCAR Sprint Cup tour touches down in Richmond. Where was Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s most recent victory prior to Michigan? Richmond. In fact, he’s got three career wins there. You can hold me to it: the next driver to end a long victory drought will be driving the 88 car to the checkered flag soon. Junior Nation’s faithfulness will soon be rewarded. Winning is no accident.
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