Views
728
Comments
84
Posted by:
JKINDELRAY
|
 

LAS VEGAS

Rick Hendrick vowed to return Dale Earnhardt Jr. to Victory Lane.

Alas, for Junior Nation, much like Chicago Cub fans, you'll have to wait until next year - again.

At least Earnhardt can take comfort in winning the Most Popular Driver award for a ninth consecutive year. But because he's a racer, that won't be enough to satisfy Earnhardt. It's been 129 races since NASCAR's favorite son won a Sprint Cup race. And that's 129 races too long.

 

Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s crew chiefs

 

It's been one year since Hendrick set out to jump-start the programs of Junior and Jeff Gordon. He rotated three of his drivers - Earnhardt, Gordon and lame duck Mark Martin - with different squads under the HMS umbrella. Earnhardt's pairing with crew chief Steve Letarte was magic. As Hendrick promised, Letarte's personality complemented Junior's.

After three mediocre seasons behind the wheel of the No. 88 Chevrolet, Earnhardt found someone he could rely on and trust within the Hendrick organization. While Earnhardt believed in Tony Eury Jr., his former crew chief and a cousin, Eury was never a Hendrick insider. Letarte eased the reclusive Earnhardt out of his shell - and out of the NASCAR driver motorcoach lot on the weekends.

The relationship blossomed and the dividends paid off. But after Earnhardt's fourth and final top-five finish in the first race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup at Chicagoland Speedway, the driver and the team appeared to run out of gas.

Earnhardt finished seventh in the points standings, his best finish in six seasons. But, he did not surpass the numbers amassed during his first season with Eury. In 2008, the No. 88 team won at Michigan, scored 10 top-fives, 16 top-10s and led 896 laps.

This year, Earnhardt earned four top-fives and 12 top-10s. But the most glaring statistic is the number of laps Earnhardt led: 52. That's the fewest number of laps he's led since he began racing the Cup full time in 2000.

His qualifying effort didn't help. Earnhardt's average starting position was 19.6. In Junior's first season at Hendrick Motorsports, he started a career best of 10.3. Starting mid-pack every week means Earnhardt must battle his way to the front. And if he can't reach the front, he won't contend for wins.

When Earnhardt was in contention, his pit crew often let him down. With track positions so difficult to achieve in NASCAR's top series, a driver hoping to be a perennial Chase candidate needs over-the-wall support to back him up.

 

 

Still, Hendrick is encouraged that Earnhardt "ran better this year than he did the year before". But the boss - and 10-time Cup championship owner - understands there's room for improvement.

"The most exciting part of that relationship is it takes five or six months for a crew chief and a driver to see if they can work together," Hendrick said. "And they'll have a lot of tolerance of each other early on. And then toward the end of the first year, you kind of find out what you really have. These two guys really like working with each other. I've seen some really good runs and then some areas where we've kind of fumbled the ball a little bit. From where I sit, and as far as those two guys and our whole company feel, we've got a good combination there, and it'll get better.

"You just don't go from running 15th and 18th to be winning every race or winning four or five races. I think what we said we needed to do was finish in the points, up in the Chase, lead some laps, be in a position to win some races, and we were in a position to win two or three races and didn't get it done. I'm happy with the progress and looking forward to next year. I think we'll be better still."

Think of it as baby steps. Establish a foundation, then build on it. Letarte has not only provided Earnhardt with a foundation, he's developed a situation where his driver can feel comfortable. And that's been a missing element for Earnhardt the past two years.

 

 

Junior had mixed emotions as the season was ending - a very different sentiment from his usual "get the hell out of dodge" attitude.

"You're going to miss racing," Earnhardt said. "You're going to miss driving. You're going to miss working with your team and your guys.

"We would definitely liked to have won a race, and opportunities to do that are running low. As far as the points go, I think we made a decent account of ourselves, but I do feel like, and I think our team understands that we're better than even where we are now in the points standings. We feel confident that we can improve."

And for the fans who elected Junior the Most Popular Driver nine seasons straight, that's all they can ask for - well, maybe optimism and eventually a return to victory lane.

December 1, 2011  08:18 PM ET

He will win a race next year. I think

Comment #2 has been removed
Comment #3 has been removed
December 1, 2011  08:54 PM ET

I WISH he can contend for the title.... but don't se it happening in 2012

Comment #5 has been removed
December 1, 2011  09:48 PM ET
QUOTE(#4):

I WISH he can contend for the title.... but don't se it happening in 2012

You are not alone.

December 1, 2011  10:21 PM ET

One of the things that I like the most about Jr is that he is himself....he is not out there schmoozing and networking and being a social smoothie....he is just Jr, as is.
Even though his Chase performanace was disappointing, overal finishing 7th and highest in a few years AND 9th year Most Popular, well he is a champion in a way that other drivers are not and cannot even hope to be.

I,too, see more good finishes next year for Jr.

December 1, 2011  10:21 PM ET

One of the things that I like the most about Jr is that he is himself....he is not out there schmoozing and networking and being a social smoothie....he is just Jr, as is.
Even though his Chase performanace was disappointing, overall finishing 7th, highest in a few years AND 9th year Most Popular, well he is a champion in a way that other drivers are not and cannot even hope to be.

I,too, see more good finishes next year for Jr.......Not sure about a championship, but definitely a few wins.

December 1, 2011  10:22 PM ET

ooops...sorry about that double posting......system hiccups

December 1, 2011  10:40 PM ET

Jr might just not only win next year,, but I also would like to see him in the top 2 or 3 in the stupid chase. Good article JK

Comment #11 has been removed
December 2, 2011  07:24 AM ET

I see #5 Kasey Kahne Winning for HMS before #88 JR ...

as for ' Most Popular Driver Award ' well JR is one of the Few Drivers from the True South ...

but, it like winning a MVP in any sport, and Not winning a Championship ... nice, but who cares! ...

will ' Most Popular Driver ' in 2012 .... be #10 Mrs. Danica ;-0

December 2, 2011  07:41 AM ET

Found this ... so I guess JR kind of won a CHASE ...

Fans cast nearly 1.5 million total votes throughout the 2011 campaign, voting up to once per day for their favorite driver at www.WheatiesFuelMostPopularDriver.com. ,,,

The field was narrowed to 10 finalists and the vote counts were RESET to zero for the final 10 races of the season. CHASE Style ;-) The nine other finalists were in alphabetical order: Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart.

December 2, 2011  07:46 AM ET
QUOTE(#12):

...will ' Most Popular Driver ' in 2012 .... be #10 Mrs. Danica ;-0

May locusts decend on your crops for even thinking such blasphemy!

Comment #15 has been removed
December 2, 2011  09:29 AM ET

...will ' Most Popular Driver ' in 2012 .... be #10 Mrs. Danica ;-0



Danica does Nascar?

December 2, 2011  09:31 AM ET

I think Jr will do better, maybe even win a race or two next year. Like the article mentioned, he's going to need better people in his pit crew. In a lot of races he came out of the pits two or three positions lower than he went in. They need to get people in there who can put him out ahead of where he came in or at least the same.

December 2, 2011  09:32 AM ET
QUOTE(#16):

...will ' Most Popular Driver ' in 2012 .... be #10 Mrs. Danica ;-0Danica does Nascar?

Dont start.. we are still in a "pick on the Busch brothers" week

December 2, 2011  09:33 AM ET
QUOTE(#17):

I think Jr will do better, maybe even win a race or two next year. Like the article mentioned, he's going to need better people in his pit crew. In a lot of races he came out of the pits two or three positions lower than he went in. They need to get people in there who can put him out ahead of where he came in or at least the same.

He;ll win a race or two.. agreed.

Still has a top notch CC and some of the best equipment.. what I found disturbing in all the statistics, however, was the extremely low laps led in light of his pretty decent position in the standings.

 
December 2, 2011  09:59 AM ET
QUOTE(#19):

He;ll win a race or two.. agreed.

Still has a top notch CC and some of the best equipment.. what I found disturbing in all the statistics, however, was the extremely low laps led in light of his pretty decent position in the standings.

Goes to show you it's about how you finish and not how you ran. Carl Edwards won a single race, and didn't lead as many laps as others and finished in a tie for first in the standings.

Comment

Remember to keep your posts clean. Profanity will get filtered, and offensive comments will be removed.


Start Your Own Blog

Start Now

Truth & Rumors

MOST POPULAR

  1. 1
    Clippers, Warriors exchange barbs
    Views
    669
    Comments
    379
  2. 2
    Time to penalize NHL's perennial losers?
    Views
    761
    Comments
    267
  3. 3
    Report: Raiders to release Terrelle Pryor on Monday
    Views
    1162
    Comments
    59
  4. 4
    Will NFL owners blackball Donald Trump?
    Views
    974
    Comments
    54
  5. 5
    Packers lovers have own dating site
    Views
    909
    Comments
    43

SI.com

SI Photos