By Joe Dunn
The Race to the Chase begins this week at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series starts the 10 race battle to make the top 12 to be IN the Chase. Sitting 277 points out of 12th, and 20th in points, the chances for Dale Earnhardt Jr. appear to be slim to none.
2007 was Earnhardt’s last year with Dale Earnhardt Inc., the company founded by his father, where Jr was the star for most of his 11 years there. But he left there on a sour note among accusation by his fans of unfair treatment by his step mother Teresa Earnhardt. Since he lost Tony Eury Sr as his crew chief after the 2004 season, his success has waned. The early complaints centered on his crew chiefs, until Tony Jr joined the team. The problems after that were constantly blamed on poor equipment, most notably engine failures. That, despite the fact that he exploded far more engines than his DEI teammates running the same engines. Then the final year was just all around bad equipment as DEI prepared for his departure to Hendrick Motor Sports.
2008 was supposed to be Junior’ breakout year, finally a chance to show his skills driving for the best organization with the best equipment in Nascar. When the Race to the Chase began, he sat 3rd in points with 1 win, 7 top 5’s and 11 top 10’s. Junior finished 2008 a disappointing 12th, last place in the Chase. The fans rallied for Junior and chalked it up to a transition year, yet there were scattered calls to replace yet another crew chief.
Well, here we are, 2009 16 races in and 10 to go to the Chase, and what is Junior’s position? He did finally get a new crew chief as Tony Jr was not too quietly relegated to the farm system and Lance McGrew took over as the 88 crew chief. Rick Hendrick promised everything that HMS owned was to be concentrated on the 88 team as a priority. Making the Chase according to Hendrick was a MUST. The team’s standings, compared to 2008? 20th in points, 724 out of first (277 out of 12th), Zero wins, 1 top 5 and 3 top 10’s.
Was Tony Jr, the problem? Looking at the stats does not support that. After 12 races with Tony Jr, Dale sat 19th in points 497 out of first (203) out of 12th. Dale had an average finish of 21.3 under Tony. Under Lance they have only competed in 4 races so far, but Dale now sits 20th in points with an average finish of 19.75. Better finishes, Yes, but no real improvement. Certainly not the improvements needed to contend for the Chase, let alone the Championship.
So, in my opinion, the answer is NO, junior will not make the Chase. The 88 team is too far behind to make up the difference over the next 10 races. When you are driving the best equipment available with no expense spared sitting 20th in points after 16 races it’s time to face the facts. Dale Jr will not make the Chase, and his chances of ever winning a Championship seem to grow dimmer as each year passes.