Friday, October 10, 2014

It's Far From Over For Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Dale Earnhardt Jr's. crew works hard during the Kansas race. Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s season started with winning his second Daytona 500, and then back-to-back second-place finishes at Phoenix and Las Vegas. The No. 88 team ended their season last year on a high note, and it appeared they were picking up right where they left off. Earnhardt Jr. even managed to sweep both Pocono races, which only added more fuel to the championship talk.

As of late, Earnhardt Jr. hasn't shown the same racing prowess as earlier in the season. In four Chase races he's only earned one top-10 finish. Has something changed or is the 88 still a contender for the Sprint Cup?

Last weekend at Kansas, Earnhardt Jr. wheeled the same chassis that earned the wins at Pocono and, after weeks of lackluster performances, finally had competitive speed.

When he took the lead on Lap 77, Earnhardt Jr. outran Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick in a dicey three-wide battle. It was the first laps he had led since Michigan in August. Earnhardt Jr. looked to have found the speed he was lacking.

But while still leading on Lap 122, a flat right front caused Earnhardt Jr. to suddenly slam into the wall and retire to the garage. With 80 laps remaining, Earnhardt Jr. returned to the track many laps
Earnhardt Jr. wins at Pocono. Credit: Chris Graythen/NASCAR via Getty Images
down, ending his day 39th.

Earnhardt Jr. also encountered calamity early in the 2013 Chase. He had an engine failure in the Chase kickoff race at Chicagoland Speedway. This dropped him to 12th in the Chase. But Earnhardt Jr. bounced back over the next few races. From being last in the points standings, he managed to finish a career-high fifth.

With that in mind, could it be that maybe Earnhardt Jr. works better under pressure? Comparing last year with this year, maybe the No. 88 performs better when all the cards are on the line. With only two races left before the next elimination, it's go or go home time.

The next race for Earnhardt Jr. is Charlotte, where he has five top fives and 11 top 10s. This is Earnhardt Jr’s. home track; a win here could really get that No. 88 back on track to contending for the championship.

On the other hand, Talladega is the dreaded wild card race. Earnhardt Jr. has five wins here and finished second last fall. This is one of Earnhardt Jr’s. best tracks, but it can also be his worst. Depending on where you run during the race, you better hope you avoid “the big one.”

I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that Earnhardt Jr. will make the Chase cut and survive another round. Based on what I see from both driver and crew chief Steve Letarte, they know it’s not over. In addition to finding speed, the team is hitting upon the right changes during pit stops to improve the car. But they need to build on their progress and stave off the bad luck.

With two races left in this round, anything can happen. Don’t count out the No. 88 yet.


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