Dale Earnhardt Jr. is caught between the sad end to this season and the excitement of starting anew in 2008
FORTY-EIGHT hours before Sunday's Nextel Cup race, Dale Earnhardt Jr. stepped into his motor coach, parked in the California Motor Speedway infield, eager to leave behind the 110° heat and the questions that had been flying at him out on pit road: Are you going to make the Chase, Junior? What's wrong with your motors, Junior? Have you picked a new number for next year, Junior?
It has been a long year for NASCAR's most popular driver, and as soon as he collapsed onto a couch in the cool of his coach, Little E let out a deep sigh and acknowledged a sobering reality: In his last season with Dale Earnhardt Inc. (DEI), the team that his father founded, he isn't likely to challenge for the Cup. "It's sad because this is the end of a portion of my career and the last time that I'm going to work with some of the guys on my team," Earnhardt said. "But I'm not going to throw in the towel over these last months. I'm going to be as aggressive as I've ever been, and it would be cool if we could end up outscoring a lot of the guys in the Chase."
Two days later Earnhardt finished fifth in the Sharp AQUOS 500 in Fontana, Calif. With one race left in NASCAR's regular season, Junior trails Kevin Harvick by 128 points for the 12th and final spot in the 10-race playoff. Even if Earnhardt were to lead the most laps and win at Richmond on Saturday, he would miss the Chase for the second time in three years if Harvick finishes 31st or better.
"If Dale Jr. and I just had a little bit of luck, we'd probably be fourth and fifth in the standings," says Martin Truex Jr., Earnhardt's teammate at DEI, who is 10th in points. "Right now our cars have more horsepower than anyone else's. But for whatever reason, Junior's had some blown motors that have really hurt him this year."
Indeed, Earnhardt has suffered more engine failures this season (four) than any other driver in the Cup series. At least one of the blowouts was caused by a collision; others were mechanical glitches that still have DEI's engineers scratching their heads. On the Wednesday before Fontana, during a test session at Iowa Speedway, Junior's engine exploded again.
But, as is well known, these mechanical flameouts aren't the main reason Earnhardt is leaving DEI for Hendrick Motor-sports at season's end. Junior hasn't talked to his stepmother, Teresa, the owner of DEI, since February, and that broken relationship is mostly why he severed his ties with the team. "I feel like I finally have control over my career," says Earnhardt. "I'm finally calling the shots."
To that end, Junior is helping to design the paint schemes for his cars next season and he's still trying to decide which number he'll have on his Hendrick-powered Chevy. (He's weighing three possibilities, with the favorite seemingly 81, a descendent of his famous number 8.) The transition to his new team will be eased by the fact that Tony Eury Jr., Earnhardt's cousin and longtime crew chief, will move with him to Hendrick next year. They won titles together in the Busch series in 1998 and '99, but they've never faced pressure like they will in 2008, when the expectations to perform will be a mile high because they'll have the best equipment money can buy. In other words, no more excuses.
"To me, pressure was having to go to Rockingham the week after my dad died and racing that whole year," says Earnhardt. "That was pressure. Next year will be fun, man, a whole lot of fun."
ONLY AT SI.COM Lars Anderson's Cup analysis every Tuesday and Friday.
1 This week Joe Gibbs Racing will make it official: The organization will jump from Chevrolet to Toyota in 2008. The move will bring a huge infusion of cash to Gibbs and raise Toyota's profile in Cup racing. In '07, its first season on the circuit, Toyota backed three teams but has no drivers among the top 30 in points; in Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin, Gibbs will have three drivers capable of winning a title.
2 By winning the Sharp AQUOS 500 on Sunday night in Fontana, Jimmie Johnson (above) is assured of at least a share of the top seed when the Chase starts in Loudon, N.H., on Sept. 16. Johnson, the defending champ, is sixth in the point standings but has a series-leading five wins—after the regular season all 12 Chase contenders begin with 5,000 points, plus 10 bonus points for each victory.
ROBERT BECK (TRACK)
NO GIVING UP Junior (8, and inset with Eury) got a top five finish at Fontana.
ROBERT LABERGE/GETTY IMAGES FOR NASCAR
[See caption above]
TODD WARSHAW/GETTY IMAGES FOR NASCAR (JOHNSON)