Dale Earnhardt Jr. joined Hendrick Motorsports in the hope that it would give him a better chance to win races and championships.
So far, the decision to leave family owned Dale Earnhardt Inc. has produced one race victory and a shot at a championship. Junior will begin his drive for that first Sprint Cup title on Sunday, when NASCAR’s postseason gets under way at New Hampshire.
The fan favorite will begin the 12-man Chase for the championship tied for fourth with three other drivers, all of whom start the 10-race playoff 70 points behind series leader Kyle Busch. But Earnhardt, who failed to qualify for last year’s Chase, is feeling confident and ready and has some very big goals for the next 2½ months of racing.
“Win as many races as I can, and win the championship,” Earnhardt said when asked what those goals are. “I’d love to win the championship walking away — you know, go into (the finale at) Homestead with it clinched already.”
So what’s the plan to make that happen in his ninth full season of Cup racing?
“I don’t think there is such a thing as having a game plan in racing,” he said. “You try to strategize, but really that evolves throughout the race.”
A good start would be very helpful, though.
In 18 Cup starts at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Earnhardt has recorded four top-five finishes and seven top-10s. He has led 272 laps, including 29 in the June race, on the flat 1.058-mile oval. But he has never finished better than third at the Loudon track.
Teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon are also in the Chase. Johnson, coming off two straight victories, is one of the favorites as he tries to win a record-tying third straight title. Gordon is winless in 2008, but owns four championships and leads active drivers with 81 career victories.
Earnhardt said he plans to listen to the two veterans as they all head into the Chase.
“Well, I’m hoping to lean on them when I can to improve our car’s ability and performance,” Earnhardt said. “You know, to take advantage of their experience and their success of the past couple years and this company’s success.
“That’s really why I’m here to begin with, just making the most out of that opportunity. I’d rather have them on my side where I can lean on them and know a little bit about what they’ve got going on and what they’re doing and what’s working for them.”
WINLESS WAYS: When Kurt Busch won the rain-shortened race at New Hampshire in June, thanks to a strategic decision by crew chief Pat Tryson, they were still hoping to make a run for a spot in the Chase.
Now, heading into the postseason, Busch and Tryson are on the outside looking in. But they are certainly going to be interested observers while racing against the title contenders over the last 10 races.
Five drivers in the Chase — Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth — are winless in Cup heading into the New Hampshire race. And Tryson, who helped Busch make the Chase last year with a late-season charge, said it could be consistency instead of wins that pays off with the big prize this year.
“Yes, it’ll be possible to win the championship without winning a race,” Tryson said. “Notice I said possible and did not say probable.
“You still have to look at those three guys starting out up front (Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson, who have 18 wins among them) and say that they are the favorites. It’ll still be about consistency, as far as the big picture goes.
“The guys without the wins had the consistency to make it into the top 12 after 26 races,” he added. “Look further on back. The guys who are 13th through 19th account for four race wins, but they didn’t have the consistency necessary to make the cut.”
FINISHING STRONG: David Reutimann, who drives for the second-year Michael Waltrip Racing team, heads into Loudon with two straight ninth-place finishes, matching his career-best performance.
“I think it says a lot, not only about this team but about this organization,” said Reutimann, who is 25th in the season points. “At one point, all three of our teams were running in the top-five (last Sunday) at Richmond, so it’s the organization as a whole that is making strides.”
Rookie teammate Michael McDowell, who was replaced for several races by veteran Mike Skinner, finished 20th, while team boss Waltrip was 28th.
“All of our drivers had positive things to say when we got out of the car,” Reutimann said. “Michael (McDowell) was back in the car for the first time in three races and it was his first time driving one of the new chassis that our team has built in-house. He immediately could tell a difference and that’s a compliment to the hard work that the guys are doing back at the shop.
“For our team, I think it’s a big statement that we’ve finished in the top 10 the past two weeks and it’s been on two completely different racetracks,” he added. “To me, that means we are making gains overall, not just on short tracks or just speedways, but everywhere. That’s what it’s going to take to be successful as the season continues.”
STAT OF THE WEEK: Jimmie Johnson has proven he is a great finisher.
Not only is Johnson the only driver to have won more than one championship since NASCAR introduced the Chase in 2004, the two-time reigning champion goes into this year’s postseason holding or sharing several other records.
Johnson has not finished worse than fifth in the points since the Chase began, by far the best record during that period. He and Matt Kenseth are the only drivers who have made the Chase field every year since it began. And Johnson has 11 race wins in the Chase, seven more than runner-up Greg Biffle.