CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- They started with the same setup they had used at
the same track in July, added a few new ideas to it, and the result was a
disaster. The car was slow in opening practice, and they spent so much
time trying to make it better, they barely got in one mock qualifying
run. The problems from Friday bled into Saturday, and when the race
started Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, did not have a very good feeling about how competitive he was going to be.
"It was inevitable to me that the car wasn't going to be what we needed," he said, "and it wasn't."
Can Junior win the 2012 Chase? David Caraviello and Nick Margiasso debate
That much quickly became evident when almost
all the other drivers in the Chase field stormed toward the front while
Earnhardt lingered mid-pack, struggling to make up ground. The result
was a 13th-place finish that left him seventh in the standings and 26
points behind current championship leader . He seemed relieved to have salvaged that much. "It should have been worse," Earnhardt said.
And just like that, only two races in,
Earnhardt's best chance in years to capture an elusive Cup Series title
is at something of a crossroads. Given the strength Johnson
traditionally has shown in the tracks in the playoff, given the run is on, given the potential Brad Keselowski
is showing, NASCAR's most popular driver needs a turnaround, and
quickly. He's not out of it, not by any means, not with eight weeks
remaining. But to get back in the championship mix Earnhardt needs to
face down adversity -- something he's perhaps better equipped to do now
than at any other point in his career.
It hasn't always been that way. In the past
Earnhardt has allowed frustration and disappointment to seep inside him,
to color the feedback he provides to his team, to derail his focus and
detonate his attitude. There were times when car owner Rick Hendrick
needed to intervene over the radio. It all came from the right place,
of course, a desire to get better and contend for race wins, but the
process could be painful to watch. Contrast all that with Sunday at New
Hampshire, when an aggravated driver ran around 20th most of the day in a
balky car, and somehow managed a 13th-place result that prevented his
Chase deficit from being much deeper than it is.
Now, that doesn't mean the No. 88 team can
afford to miss the setup again or bungle through another practice
session, particularly not now with its margin for error so thin. But
Sunday at New Hampshire used to be the kind of day that took Earnhardt
completely out of it, where problem mounted upon problem mounted upon
problem, where radio communication grew terse and defeat hung in the air
like a dangling pit-stall sign. So much of the Chase is about crisis
management, of not letting small issues turn into big ones or big ones
turn into crippling ones. Sooner or later, every team involved will face
a circumstance where the response is capable of determining its fate.
On that front, at the very least, Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte
left themselves a chance.
"It's something I've been trying to work on,
trying to tone down my attitude a little bit more when things aren't
going right, and trying to be more a part of the solution than part of
the problem," Earnhardt said Tuesday in a question-and-answer session
with fans at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. "I know that Steve is going to
work the best, and have the best chance at fixing the car, if I keep a
calm attitude when I'm giving him information. If I'm shouting and
yelling, or I'm just cussing the race car and not really telling him
what I think is wrong with it, he can't fix it. He can't fix it with
information like that. So I've been working on that."
That doesn't mean Sunday was pretty. Speaking
with reporters after his Q&A with fans, Earnhardt detailed how his
New Hampshire effort went off-course in Friday practice, and how the
mismanagement of that single session affected the team's entire weekend.
"We feel like we can definitely do better than that, and we should and
will," he said. "Whether we can do good enough to overcome the deficit
we've put in front of us, I don't know. But we're going to work for it
and see what happens."
Rebounding from adversity is often a hallmark of
a championship effort. Johnson did it, in 2006 when he was crashed at
Talladega and fell to eighth in points, and to a lesser degree in 2009
when he was wrecked by in the third-to-last event of the season. did it in 2004, rallying when a wheel fell off his race car.
did it last season, firing his crew chief in mid-Chase and then
overcoming a piece of debris that punctured his radiator early in a race
he had to win. Denny Hamlin couldn't do it in 2010, letting poor pit
strategy in the penultimate event so affect him that was almost beaten
by the time he showed up for the finale.
It's not going to be easy, not the whole way
through, not for anybody. Hamlin may have looked invincible last weekend
at New Hampshire, when he won for the third time in the past five
weeks. Now he heads to Dover, one of his worst tracks, and is trading
text messages with noted sports psychologist Dr. Bob Rotella to try and
stay in the right frame of mind. Hamlin also was at the Hall on Tuesday,
and he pulled out his iPhone to read reporters a message from Rotella:
"Let your challenge for this week be to fall in love with this track,"
the psychologist wrote him. "From the moment you arrive, look for things
to love about it and reasons to love it."
Of course, that's easier said than done. But
Hamlin is another driver who once allowed adversity to stick with him
too long, as his 2010 championship loss to Johnson -- and the year-long
funk that followed it -- would attest. Now he's better at handling such
things, partly because of his work with Rotella, and partly because of
the security that came with the contract extension he signed earlier
this year with Joe Gibbs Racing.
I have an easier time of biting my tongue than I used to. I think I hold it together during the race better.
-- DALE EARNHARDT JR.
"There's so much uncertainty in our sport
nowadays with like who's going to go where, and sponsors staying or
going and everything," Hamlin said. "For me, it's comforting knowing
that I'm in a stable situation."
Earnhardt's situation is stable, as well, but
that doesn't make his challenge in the final eight races of this Chase
any less daunting. The way he's dealing with problems on the race track,
though, just might. Now, Earnhardt is self-aware enough to realize he
probably sent the wrong message with his body language after getting out
of the car Sunday. He also knows that a few years ago, difficulties
like those he battled at New Hampshire might have mushroomed into
something much worse.
"I have an easier time of biting my tongue than I
used to," he said. "I think I hold it together during the race better. I
basically try to stay calm all day Sunday and give Steve an opportunity
to fix the car. I think in the past, we'd have probably had a meltdown
that would be quite popular in situations like that in the past. So I
think I do a better job of handling those kinds of things. But for some
reason after the race, I really can't shake it off. I just get out of
the car and don't say anything, and I know that's probably not the best
reaction out of the choices I have. It's just real hard for me to get
over it. It takes me a couple of days."
Tuesday, it seemed that Earnhardt's fans already
had left it behind. In the 30-minute Q&A, they were more concerned
with topics like hunting, his love for the Washington Redskins, his
television commercials with Danica Patrick,
and what he cooks for himself. Turns out Earnhardt is a big griller,
with "racks and racks of seasonings," though he's been eating a lot of
salads lately to stay in shape for the Chase -- which was one thing
nobody asked about.
"I'm sure," Earnhardt said later with a smile, "they'd have gotten around to that."
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.