Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s season of unrelenting misery and inexplicable failure continued Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway, where his bizarre string of awful luck extended beyond the track. Six pit crew workers for the 88 team for were involved in a car accident Sunday morning on the way to the track. According to ESPN, all six men were treated and released at the PIR Infield Care Center after their vehicle was T-boned at an intersection near the track.
So, that was before the race even started.
Once the green flag dropped on Sunday’s Checker O’Reilly Auto Parts 500, it was all Jimmie Johnson up front, while the rest of the field fought for also-ran status. Earnhardt Jr. battled in the top-20 for the first half of the race, but as the event reached the halfway mark his fortune took a turn for the worse. A number of cars reported that there was fluid leaking from underneath Earnhardt Jr.’s Chevrolet just past the 150-lap mark. A caution for debris on lap 164 brought the field to pit road and the Lance McGrew-led team serviced the No. 88 without raising the hood. Earnhardt Jr. restarted 15th.
Racing hard with Marcos Ambrose on lap 172, Earnhardt Jr. caught the apron exiting the fourth corner and triggered a nine-car melee. Unable to hold the car under Ambrose, the No. 88 slid sideways as the rest of the field piled in behind him.
Initial reports indicated the fluid was to blame, but a second look from the bumper camera on Ryan Newman’s car – which was directly behind Earnhardt – showed no fluid coming from the car. Behind the wall, the raised hood of the No. 88 had oil all over it; however the leak did not seem to trigger the wreck.
"I hate it for everyone who got caught up in that,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “That was a pretty big mess. I was trying to spin the car down the track, just driving it wide open into the inside wall, and I couldn’t get out of everybody’s way. We got something broke on the motor where it’s got an oil leak and we can’t find it. It’s been like this the whole race and we just got to find out what it is and try to get back out.”
Among those involved, Tony Stewart was none-too-happy with Earnhardt Jr. After pulling away from the mess on the frontstretch, Stewart radioed his crew and called Earnhardt Jr. a “no talent S.O.B.”
After a long search for the oil leak, the team was able to make repairs and send Earnhardt back to the track to limp around until the end. Coming home 35th, the team earned its 18th finish of 25th or worse and ninth finish outside the top 35 in 2009. The loss was Earnhardt’s 56th straight.
The good news for Earnhardt Jr. and his hordes of fans is there is only one more race before the 2009 season is in the books. The bad news for Earnhardt Jr. and his hordes of fans is there is one more race before the 2009 season is in the books.
There is no reason to believe next week will go any better than this week. Junior has no wins, no top-5s and no top-10s at Homestead. His average start is 19.3 and his average finish is 23.4. Last year he recorded a DNF after a broken wheel bearing left him with a 41st-place finish.
There is probably no driver more eager to get this season over with than Dale Earnhardt Jr. After two years with the best organization in history of the sport, all he has to show for it is one win, 12 top-5s and 21 top-10s in 67 races. Changes in the crew have not led to improvement and Earnhardt Jr.’s confidence has eroded.
With so much pressure on him, Earnhardt Jr. needs to take this off-season to refocus his career. He is the biggest name in the sport, yet he can’t seem to handle the responsibility that comes along with that. As Jimmie Johnson prepares to give Rick Hendrick another championship title, now is the time for Hendrick Motorsports to fix the No. 88 team and get Junior back in the mix in 2010. If not, it is going to be another long year for Earnhardt Jr. and a true test for his fans.
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