Fighting to Survive: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Clinging On To Chase Seed, Looking For Wins
It's a story often put on replay for NASCAR's most popular racer this season, but it's one that's perhaps most important to both driver and team: Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 88 Chevy crew must make the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Rewind to this past June following the STP 400 at Kansas Speedway when he scored a runner-up, propelling him to the third position in the points standings.
Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte were riding the high tides of their stellar season, immediately producing results following the Hendrick Motorsports personnel shuffle during the winter.
At that juncture of the season, they scored three top-fives and six top-10's following 13 races, which were respectable numbers for most teams in the hunt for the title.
They nearly won at Martinsville before Kevin Harvick beat them to the stripe. Talladega was a near-miss but he played the good Samaritan by drafting teammate Jimmie Johnson to a photo finish win.
Then there was Charlotte's Coca-Cola 600 during Memorial Day weekend and just about a half-straight's length from turn four to the stripe separated Earnhardt from snapping a three-year losing streak.
Coming to the finish, it looked like it'd be the raucous Victory Lane celebration scene all year long. Hollywood wouldn't have been able to come up with the perfect storybook ending for the man who was racing at his backyard outside Charotte, NC.
However, fuel mileage did him in, as he ran out of gas, relegating to a heartbreaking seventh-place result.
While it wasn't much of a thought at the time, that moment somewhat showed the cracks and dents into the No. 88 team's armor.
Sure, most teams encounter adversity, but the real question after that bitter defeat was, "Can they handle adversity and turn it into a positive result?"
Initially, it seemed like nothing could get int he way of the unflappable No. 88 camp, as they muscled their way from a 21st starting position at Pocono and scored a strong sixth-place finish.
Little did they know that it'd be about the high-water point thus far in 2011, as the wheels suddenly came off the AMP Energy/National Guard Chevy team rather steadily. Witness:
Michigan started a rather rocky streak of races in which Earnhardt and company finished 15th or worse, including a 21st at Michigan, a 41st overheating DNF at Infineon, 19th at Daytona, 30th at Kentucky, 15th at Loudon, and 16th at Indianapolis.
Certainly, these struggles aren't a result of the team losing focus or lacking in effort with trying to win a title. Instead, it's a case where misfortune has found Earnhardt and Letarte's unit, where those lucky breaks earlier in the year seemed to slip away in the summer stretch.
August wasn't that much better although Pocono delivered another solid performance from Earnhardt with a ninth-place effort.
Although that somewhat stopped the bad luck streak, the finishes haven't improved much since the second race at "The Tricky Triangle."
Watkins Glen wasn't much of a treat to The Earnhardt Express, as they placed 15th, about par for "Little E's" standards at a road course.
Then came the second races at Michigan and Bristol in which this team appeared more to racing for survival than for wins and maximum points, placing 14th and 16th.
Following his somewhat middling performance last Saturday night at Bristol, the usually confident racer had the look of a man knowing how fortunate he was to just survive rather than compile a poor finish.
"We struggled all night, really, trying to get a good car," Earnhardt said per AP Sports Writer Jenna Fryer's article. "We were just slow. We didn’t have enough grip. Just sliding around a whole lot. Thankful to finish where we did."
Performing at an average level during the final stretch of the regular season doesn't exactly translate to a championship-caliber team, especially when racers like Brad Keselowski have been churning up their games recently.
When you reflect on how strong this team was back in the spring and look at how they've fared as of late, it just simply reiterates an adage about sports, as well as with life: "What have you done for me lately?"
This is a performance-based sport and when any of the key players, be it the driver, crew chief, pit crew, or shop personnel, aren't achieving results, answers must be found before major changes are executed.
Right now, more than anything else, this team needs to put a new goal as its number one priority.
Sure, if they make the Chase, that'd be a great shot in the arm for Earnhardt, having missed the Chase for the past two seasons.
Perhaps more important than getting that playoff seed is the one thing that 42 other drivers on any given race weekend battle for nearly four hours for at blinding speeds: being the first to grab that checkered flag.
Atlanta and Richmond are the final two tracks of the regular season, which have historically been somewhat solid venues for the 36-year-old racer.
Having previously won at Atlanta Motor Speedway in March of 2004 and capturing three Richmond trophies (2000, '04, and '06), he's got reasons to believe that he can contend not solely for respectability.
Rather, this is about a driver who needs to do just one thing: win races.
Will Earnhardt finally break out of that three-year slump?
Does an Earnhardt ever give up in NASCAR racing?
Answer that one for yourself or watch and see how the sport's most prolific icon will manage to silence the naysayers and critics in the next two weeks.
[Associated Press via Yahoo! Sports]