Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Earnhardt Jr.’s margin for error is gone

That all-too-familiar feeling is coming back. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is struggling as the series heads to Indianapolis to begin the final stretch toward the Chase.

Just weeks ago it looked like Earnhardt Jr. was a lock to make the Chase, and could be a legitimate contender for the championship.

Then came Michigan, the track where he won 111 races ago.

Late in the race his teammate, Mark Martin, pulled up in front of him and cut down his tire to relegate the #88 car to a 21st-place finish.

In the last five races, Earnhardt Jr. has an average finish of 25.2 and has fallen from third to ninth. He went from just 10 points out of leading the standings to just seven points from being outside the Chase.

Is it time to panic? Yes. The tracks coming up on the schedule aren’t some of his best, and all of a sudden it looks like the team’s mojo is gone. Maybe the off-week allowed the team to get some things straightened out at the shop, but Earnhardt Jr. is out of mulligans at this point.

Earnhardt Jr. cannot have anymore bad luck for the next seven weeks. Bad luck has been part of the problem during the last month as he got taken out by Martin at Michigan and was involved in an early wreck at Sonoma, where he finished 41st.

While the past four-and-a-half years have been difficult, (Earnhardt Jr. hasn’t finished in the top 10 in points since 2006) this year could be the most painful for his fans.

Finally, it seemed, Earnhardt Jr. was back up at the front. No, he hadn’t yet won a race, but that was right around the corner. Even if he didn’t win a race, he would at least comfortably make the Chase and have a shot at the championship.

It would be back like the good ‘ol days. That nagging pain his fans felt every time he spent most of a race out of contention would finally go away. It would be OK to be excited about his chances before a race.

Well, that is gone. Now Earnhardt Jr. fans will likely have more anxiety before a race than excitement. With Earnhardt Jr. barely hanging on to a Chase spot, it is now more important that he have good, consistent finishes than take chances for a win.

The margin of error for Earnhardt Jr. is gone. For the next seven races, Junior Nation will have its collective stomach in knots.

If Earnhardt Jr. comes through and makes the Chase, there will be an incredible feeling of relief and joy, but if he misses the Chase again, it might sting this year more than ever.


  1. Why does my stomach hurt? =)
    I am not panicking yet! Junyer can rally - seems like teams are very streaky this year - really on then really off.

    Time will tell if Junyer Nation will need their shrinks!

  2. klvalus - That's true, and the standings have been pretty fluid the past several weeks. This team just can't have another bad race anytime soon. Once you fall out, it's twice as hard to get it back.

  3. I could see Jr having a solid run at all those tracks, but Watkins Glen is where I would be most concerned. He MUST MUST MUST finish in the top 10 at the Glen. (IMO he has to average an 11th place or better finish each of the next seven weeks.) He's never been a good road course racer, and to ask him to do something good at a course that he's NOT good at, may be asking a bit too much.

  4. Take him off the spit... He's done!

    Too much worrying about why he doesn't like this track or that... Too many things to distract the man... Too much on his shoulders... It all adds up to an ever-growing mountain of races run without a win and now a consecutive years streak of Junior-less Chases... But he's a multi-millionaire!

  5. He was extremely lucky early in the year. Lucky dogs and wave arounds turned mediocre outings into top-10s. He wasn't running up front or leading laps. The luck is just evening itself out.

  6. jon_464 - I think he would be pleased with a top-20 finish at the Glen. The tough part going forward is he has to drive carefully, which might hurt his chances of getting a win.

    Dwindy1 - This year would be the most discouraging of any year he hasn't made the Chase because he actually looked to be in good position. If he can't make it this year, how will he ever make it?

    Gene - And most of these upcoming tracks are ones where real performance matters a lot more than luck.