Dale Earnhardt, Jr., finally vented the frustration of a long and trying season last week, saying he is upset with his team’s poor performance and has no idea what to do about it.
Earnhardt's Hendrick Motorsports teammates -- Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon – currently fill the top three positions in Sprint Cup championship points, while Earnhardt languishes a distant 22nd in the championship chase. The 48, 5 and 24 teams have combined for 11 Sprint Cup victories this season, while Earnhardt’s winless streak is now more than a year long.
"I'm about to the end of my rope," admitted NASCAR's most popular driver. “I feel like I don't have any control, you know? (Rick Hendrick) put me in a great position, but I haven't made the most of it. For whatever reason, we're just not getting it done.”
Earnhardt said he is puzzled by his team’s inconsistency, admitting, “I don't know what to do. We were top-15 in practice (at Lowes Motor Speedway) and we go out to qualify and we were one of the worst cars here. It's really encouraging one day and the next day it's equally discouraging. That gets really old. I'm about to the end of my rope on it."
Asked whether he will team with crewchief Lance McGrew again in 2010, Earnhardt said, "I don't have the credentials to make the call. If I told you that I wanted to be with Lance next year, I wouldn't be telling you that out of my knowledge of expertise and talent. I'd be telling because it's fun hanging out with him. Hell, (I) don't even know if Lance wants to do it. I wouldn't want it. It's a tough job."
Team owner Rick Hendrick indicated that he is leaning toward returning McGrew to the pit box next season, saying he prefers to fine-tune, rather than rebuild.
For his part, Earnhardt said he needs a “dictator” like Tony Eury Sr. atop his pit box, immediately stressing that he is not ruling out McGrew. Eury, Sr., however, has repeatedly stated that he is not interested in returning to the Sprint Cup Series, and is happy in his current position as crewchief for the #88 JR Motorsports NASCAR Nationwide Series team.
Earnhardt's frustration is genuine and deep-seated. It's nothing a win or two won't cure, but at his present clip, Junior does not appear headed for Victory Lane anytime soon.
Johnson On Track For Four: While Earnhardt struggled, Jimmie Johnson took a major step toward an unprecedented fourth consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship Saturday night at Lowes Motor Speedway, winning the NASCAR Banking 500 (his second straight win and his third in the last four starts) and triggering another round of complaints from observers tired of seeing the same championship trophy go home in the same set of hands.
Johnson’s win combined with poor performances by many of his closest championship pursuers to bust a razor-close title chase wide open. Johnson and crewchief Chad Knaus now enjoy a healthy, 90-point advantage in the championship standings; the biggest lead any team has enjoyed at the halfway mark of a Chase. A year ago, Johnson was 69 points ahead of Jeff Burton after five Chase starts, and Jeff Gordon led Johnson by 68 at this juncture in 2007.
The anti-Johnson contingent is divided into two distinct groups; those who resent his success, and those tired of seeing their favorite driver come up short by comparison.
The first camp contains at least a handful of his fellow drivers and team owners. Jack Roush continues to carp about the preferential treatment he fears Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports teammates receive from NASCAR. The Roush Fenway Racing owner is still waiting to see how NASCAR will address rumors of discrepancies with Johnson’s car; rumors that Roush refuses to discount despite three consecutive weeks of white-glove inspections by NASCAR at their Concord, NC, Research and Development Center.
Greg Biffle complained bitterly about Johnson’s inclusion in a late-season Goodyear tire test at Dover, saying that test gave the Lowes Chevrolet team a decided advantage in Round Two of the Chase. Those complaints ignore the fact that one of Biffle’s own teammates, David Ragan, also took part in the test, giving Roush Fenway Racing access to the same information enjoyed by Johnson and Knaus.
Simply put, Jimmie Johnson and the Lowes Chevrolet team are the class of the field again in 2009, and their chances for a four-peat grow stronger with every passing week. While those around him stumble, Johnson simply grows stronger, beating the competition at its own game.
Resent him if you like. Hate him for beating your favorite driver if you must.
But take a moment along the way to appreciate something that has never been seen before in the near-60 year history of this sport.
Jimmie Johnson is just that good.
RCR Could Drop To Three Cars: Richard Childress said Saturday that major changes are coming for his race team, and that Richard Childress Racing could be a three-car operation in 2010. Sirius Speedway reported Friday that Todd Berrier will be announced as the new crewchief of Jeff Burton’s #31 Caterpillar Chevrolet later this week, and Childress confirmed that additional personnel announcements are expected.
"We are making a lot of changes," he said. "We'll probably be announcing more changes next week, (and) using these last races to get prepared for 2010. We know we have to be better.”
Childress said he sees improvement in his team’s performance in recent weeks, but that the future of Casey Mears and the #07 Chevrolet is unknown. No full-time sponsor has been signed to replace the departing Jack Daniel’s next season, and Childress said the team will not continue without one.
"Right now, we're meeting with companies,” he said. “We've had several meetings. As you know, the economic times are tough right now for sponsorship. We're wanting to run (the #07, but) we can't turn it into a park and start. I don't want to do that.”