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After a disappointing season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. looks forward to Richmond

He didn't make the Chase for the Cup and has just one victory in 123 point races. But he has three career wins at the Richmond oval and says 'I have a lot of confidence going into there.'

September 12, 2009|Jim Peltz

When the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series arrived in Richmond, Va., a year ago, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his "Junior Nation" of fans were riding high.

It was his first year after joining the powerhouse team of Hendrick Motorsports, and NASCAR's most popular driver was fourth in the standings and headed to the series' Chase for the Cup late-season championship playoff. But Earnhardt faded in the Chase, and he came in last among the playoff's 12 drivers in 2008.

And this year was even worse. His race results early in NASCAR's season were so poor that Earnhardt's crew chief, his cousin Tony Eury Jr., was replaced.

Now the stock-car racing series again arrives in Richmond for tonight's Chevy Rock & Roll 400, the last race before this year's Chase, and Earnhardt and his No. 88 Chevrolet won't be in the 2009 playoff.

Earnhardt is a distant 21st in the drivers' points standings and is still trying to make headway with his new crew chief, Lance McGrew, who took over in early June after Earnhardt finished a dismal 40th in the Coca-Cola 600 race.

After Richmond, the 10-race Chase starts Sept. 20 in New Hampshire and its fourth stop is the Pepsi 500 on Oct. 11 at the two-mile Auto Club Speedway in Fontana.

For Earnhardt, son of the late and legendary seven-time NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt, the goal now is simply to win races -- or at least finish near the front -- and prepare for another shot at his first title in 2010.

Richmond could provide the lift he needs. Three of Earnhardt's 18 career Cup wins have come at the 0.75-mile Richmond oval.

"I have a lot of confidence going into there," Earnhardt said. "It's easier for me to tell my crew chief what the car is doing at that track than some others."

McGrew, in turn, said: "I feel like the last couple of races we've finally gotten some of the finishes that I've felt like we've deserved. Right now we're racing for wins."

In the meantime, a cloud of uncertainty continues to hover over Earnhardt, 34, who acknowledged when he joined Hendrick that he had "no more excuses" for not winning now that he was driving Hendrick's cars.

His struggle stands in even sharper relief when compared with his three Hendrick teammates: Four-time champion Jeff Gordon is second in points, three-time title winner and reigning champ Jimmie Johnson is third, and veteran Mark Martin, who came out of semi-retirement to join Hendrick this year, is 10th with four wins.

Martin, in fact, is having the type of year Earnhardt was expected to enjoy when he joined Hendrick.

But Earnhardt's last point-paying win came at Michigan in June 2008 -- he also won the Budweiser Shootout exhibition race at Daytona at the start of last year -- so he has now gone 46 races without a victory. And he had a 76-race winless streak before that Michigan win, so Earnhardt has had one trip to Victory Lane in 123 point races.

In addition, Earnhardt has shown little improvement since McGrew took over, although both say their communication concerning the race car's setups is getting better. That give-and-take between driver and crew chief is crucial because the cars constantly change, and thus need adjustments, during the course of a race.

Earnhardt finished third at Michigan, ninth at Bristol last month and 17th at Atlanta last week, but he's two spots lower in the standings since McGrew replaced Eury.

Still, Hendrick Motorsports is optimistic.

"Dale Jr. and Lance are really clicking from a communication standpoint, and we've started to see the results of that here lately," said Marshall Carlson, the team's general manager.

"Looking ahead to next season would be extremely easy to do, but the entire crew is focused on 2009," Carlson said. "The season isn't over, and we still have a lot left to accomplish."

No one is more cognizant of the situation than Earnhardt, who is constantly asked about his career record.

"I don't really find it to be a real big problem because, for the most part, most of the criticism was definitely deserved or warranted," Earnhardt said before last month's Michigan race. And after that race, Earnhardt accepted some of the blame, saying he sometimes would get frustrated during races and didn't keep his focus.

"Since I started working with Lance, I've been trying to work really hard to be the same person at the end of the race that I am at the start of the race mentally," he said. "It just comes down to sticking with it, staying with the team, and trying to be part of a solution instead of a part of the problem."

But it hasn't been easy for Earnhardt's army of fans to be patient. Indeed, some observers have pointed to his slump to explain the slip in television ratings for many Cup races this year.

"I'm not sure if that can be possible or not," Earnhardt said of that theory this summer. "If it is, it shouldn't be. The sport shouldn't rest on one man's shoulders."




The Standings

The top 12 drivers qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, which begins after tonight's race at Richmond, Va. (Chevy Rock & Roll 400,

4 p.m. PDT, Channel 7):

1. Tony Stewart


2. Jeff Gordon


3. Jimmie Johnson


4. Denny Hamlin


5. Carl Edwards


6. Kasey Kahne


7. Kurt Busch


8. Juan Pablo Montoya


9. Ryan Newman


10. Mark Martin


11. Greg Biffle


12. Matt Kenseth


13. Brian Vickers


14. Kyle Busch


15. David Reutimann


21. Dale Earnhardt Jr.


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