As the only driverfrom Hendrick Motorsports who failed to qualify for the Chase, Dale EarnhardtJr. has been a largely forgotten man these past few weeks. Then again, thisentire season has been a lost one for Little E, who turns a not-so-little 35 onSaturday. He's currently sitting on a winless streak of 50 races, has only twotop five finishes in 29 starts and has seven of Hendrick's 16 finishes in 35thplace or worse. Yes, Earnhardt's career is at a crossroads, which is why thefinal seven races of '09 are so important for his future and that of the number88 team.
"We need tostart turning this around and build momentum for next season," Earnhardtsaid on Sunday at Kansas Speedway minutes before the start of the Price Chopper400. Referring to owner Rick Hendrick, he added, "I want to keep this teamtogether, but ultimately that's the boss's decision. But I think we've turned acorner."
Kansas may havemarked that turning point. Last Friday, Earnhardt qualified second—his bestqualifying effort of the season—and then on Sunday he blazed past Mark Martin,his Hendrick teammate and the Chase leader, to pace the field for 41 of thefirst 53 laps. Earnhardt fell a lap down when a tire changer missed a lug nuton his left rear tire during a pit stop, prompting NASCAR to order him backonto pit road, yet Earnhardt displayed tantalizing speed and handling for mostof the afternoon. Though an oil-pump belt broke late on the number 88 Chevy andEarnhardt finished 36th behind winner Tony Stewart (box), the race was a moralvictory for Earnhardt and his crew chief, Lance McGrew, who in May replacedJunior's longtime crew chief, Tony Eury Jr. The outing was particularlysignificant because Earnhardt was piloting the first race car that McGrew builtespecially for him: Featuring a lighter chassis, it will serve as a model forLittle E's cars in 2010.
"We're seeingflashes of improvement," says McGrew, who had been the head of Hendrick'sresearch and development team. "We're still building up Junior'sconfidence, which really had taken a hit. He doubted everything hedid."
Earnhardt'sbiggest problem this season has been his performance during the second halvesof races. After the midpoint is when he has committed pit-road gaffes,triggered wrecks and missed his marks through the turns. "Junior needs toget his ass to the gym," says one member of a rival team. "He getstired late in races and loses his concentration."
While McGrewacknowledges that his driver isn't the fittest in the garage, he believes thatwhat's holding the team back is his own lack of experience with Earnhardt, aswell as not having deciphered how to make the car consistently handle to thedriver's liking. Hendrick will meet with the pair before the Oct. 17 Charlotterace to let them know if they'll be together next season. On Sunday, Hendricksaid that he's happy with their "chemistry," so it's likely the teamwill remain intact for 2010—a year that is shaping up to be the most pivotal ofEarnhardt's career. It will be his third season at Hendrick, and even thoughthe owner is a father figure to Little E, he won't tolerate mediocrity muchlonger from the highest-earning driver in NASCAR.
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Chase analysis byLars Anderson and Mark Beech's Racing Fan at SI.com/bonus
Kansas Speedway is the first of five 1.5- to 2-miletracks in the Chase. Drivers who fare well there have traditionally flourishedon the playoffs' other such layouts, which bodes well for Tony Stewart (below).After his win on Sunday, Stewart trails leader Mark Martin by 67 points.... Thebiggest surprise of the Chase? Juan Pablo Montoya, who is third in points. Hehad only two top fives in the regular season, but he is the only Chaser with atop five in each of the first three playoff races.... In the Chase's first fiveyears only one driver left Kansas trailing by 100 or more points and went on towin the Cup (Jimmie Johnson in 2006). History suggests, then, that Jeff Gordon(103 back), Greg Biffle (114), Ryan Newman (164), Carl Edwards (165) and KaseyKahne (190) are toast.
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FASTER FORWARD? Winless in 50 races and the only Hendrick driver not in the Chase, Earnhardt now is looking to 2010.
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