AVONDALE, ARIZ. — It started with a bang, one of the loudest in NASCAR history, but it's ending mostly with a whimper.
When Dale Earnhardt Jr. moved from his family's team to the powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports at the start of this season, it sent shock waves through stock car racing.
Earnhardt, son of the late NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt and himself the sport's most popular driver, was joining forces with arguably the best team on the track.
And as Earnhardt's army of fans relished the new marriage and snapped up the jackets and other merchandise minted with his new number and logo, Earnhardt immediately responded.
He won the opening race of the year -- the non-points Budweiser Shootout sprint at Daytona International Speedway -- in his new No. 88 Hendrick Chevrolet.
Now, his fans hoped, Earnhardt was on the way to his first Sprint Cup championship, which, after all, was the reason he moved to Hendrick.
Except it didn't work out that way.
With only two races left in the season, including today's Checker O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Phoenix International Raceway, Earnhardt's season has been a glass half full and half empty.
He finally won his first points race in more than two years, at Michigan in June. Earnhardt also consistently ran near the front in the first half of the year and was second in the point standings as late as August.
"He carried the torch at Hendrick at the start of the season," said his teammate Jimmie Johnson, who starts on the pole today and is seeking his third consecutive championship. Earnhardt starts fifth.
Earnhardt, 34, also has finished nearly every race, unlike last year when a series of engine failures helped saddle him with a career-high nine DNFs (did not finish). And Earnhardt made the Chase for the Cup after not reaching the late-season title playoff in 2007.
But there was disappointment as well. Too often his Chevy faded in the later stages of races or Earnhardt ran into unexpected problems.
He has only three top-five finishes since his win at Michigan and has struggled in the Chase, coming to Phoenix next to last among the playoff's 12 drivers.
Even so, "I'm real happy with how things have worked out," Earnhardt said Friday. "I would have liked to perform better on the race track the last half of the season.
"I'm real pleased with where I'm at and who I'm working with and real lucky and fortunate to have the opportunity that I have with Rick [Hendrick] and all the employees there," he said.
Circumstances derailed several of Earnhardt's races, said Tony Eury Jr., his crew chief and cousin.
When the Chase began, "we started out at Loudon, top five [finish], and everything was really good," Eury said. "Went to Dover and had a right rear [tire] blow out, went to Kansas and just ran OK, then went to Talladega and wrecked, went to Charlotte and had another blown tire.
"We were actually running very well at those places, but the results weren't there and that's what you get paid for in this series."
Overall, Earnhardt has 10 top-five finishes this year, up from seven last season when he drove the red No. 8 Chevy for Dale Earnhardt Inc.
Rusty Wallace, a former Cup champion and now a racing TV analyst, said "performance-wise, I personally think that he did every bit as good with his old team as he's doing with his new team."
Wallace added: "The only thing that is better is he hasn't broken down this year. Last year, he broke down a lot -- blown motors. And this year he hasn't had the blown motors so he's higher in the points and he's in the Chase."
But Johnson said "it wasn't easy [for Earnhardt] to switch teams and rebuild and start over. I don't think for effort they could try any harder. He's far exceeded my expectations."
Of course, Earnhardt and his team know that Earnhardt's enormous popularity raises expectations that might never be fully met no matter how well he drives.
His fans are "not going to be satisfied until he's the champ and has won the most races of everybody," Eury said. "We know there's a goal out there that the fans want us to meet and a lot of times we're not going to meet that."
But the team will keep trying, Earnhardt said.
"Every time I get in my car, it's the best race car I've ever seen," Earnhardt said of Hendrick's Chevrolets. "So I want to make sure next year I can put it together the whole season."
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Full speed ahead
Jimmie Johnson, the defending race winner, turned a lap of 134.725 mph in qualifying Friday in his Chevrolet to earn the top starting spot today. If he gains 57 more points than Carl Edwards, Johnson would need only to start the season finale to become the first driver since Cale Yarborough (1976-78) to win three titles in a row.
"That's really the bottom line is we need to be 162 up leaving here, then all I have to do is go down there and start," Johnson said. "Am I planning on that being the case? No. Carl's car has been so strong. My goal is to outrun him."