Friday March 20th, 2009

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a computer nut. If he's not at the racetrack, there's a high probability that he's in the computer room at his house in Kannapolis, N.C., with his face pressed close to the glow of the monitor. He spends most of his online time playing racing simulation games -- he logged as many as six hours a day this offseason challenging other drivers in i-Racing -- and he's also a serial surfer of the Internet for NASCAR news. Lately, the news about Little E has not been good.

A brief recap of his season: At the Daytona 500 he first missed his pit stall during a pit stop, then overshot his stall during a later pit stop, prompting NASCAR to assess a lap penalty. Fighting to get his lap back, he clipped the rear of Brian Vickers' Toyota, which triggered the Big One and knocked several of the top contenders out of the race. Earnhardt finished 27th and many of his competitors were more than a little steamed at him.

The follies continued. He blew an engine the next week in California and finished 39th. Seven days after that, he was busted twice for speeding on pit road at Las Vegas but was able work his way up through the field late and come in 11th. On March 8, in Atlanta, he failed to consistently run with the leaders and finished a quiet 10th.

After four events, the No. 88 team is stuck in 24th in the standings. History suggests that Earnhardt won't make the Chase. After all, there have been 54 drivers who have advanced to the Chase since the playoff-style format was adopted in 2004. Of those drivers, 50 have been in the top-20 in the points after four races. This means that 92.5 percent of the drivers who ultimately qualified for the Chase were in a better position at this juncture of the season than Earnhardt is right now.

So what have been Little E's biggest problems this year? For starters, his concentration level simply hasn't been as high as many of his competitors. As I wrote last week in the magazine, sports psychologists say that a NASCAR driver has to make as many as 50 decisions on a single lap. The briefest lapse in concentration can ruin a driver's race. Several times this year Earnhardt has been his own worst enemy, which, to his credit, he'll be the first to admit. (Free advice to Little E: Work with a sports psychologist to improve your concentration. Call Dr. Jack Stark, who has worked with several NASCAR drivers, including some of your own teammates.)

There's been a lot of talk in the garage over the last few years that Earnhardt's interests away from Cup racing -- such as the JR Motorsports Nationwide team that he owns and his Whiskey River nightclub in Charlotte -- keep him from being focused when he's behind the wheel. I don't buy that. Several drivers, including four-time champ Jeff Gordon and three-time defending champ Jimmie Johnson, have myriad interests outside of racing, and these clearly don't affect them once the engines fire.

There have also been rumblings in the garage that Earnhardt should part ways with Tony Eury Jr., his longtime crew chief. But the sources I trust most in the sport universally tell me that Eury isn't the problem on this team. True, Earnhardt and Eury have struggled in years past late in runs and late in races; the adjustments they've made have caused the car to become progressively slower rather than faster. But this is starting to change. According to a statistic that NASCAR calls "fastest late in a run," Earnhardt currently ranks third. This stat measures lap speeds of the final 25 percent of laps run after a pit stop. If Earnhardt fans are looking for a ray of hope, this is it.

Even though the season is only four races old, expect Earnhardt and Eury to act with a sense of urgency this weekend at Bristol. Earnhardt is one of the top short track racers in the Cup series, and he has three top-five finishes in his last five starts at Bristol, a .533 mile high-banked oval. Eury and his crew have been working overtime these past few days, fine-tuning everything on Earnhardt's car, and I expect this team to be near the top of the speed chart as soon as the cars roll onto the track for the first practice.

Yes, Earnhardt has won only one race in 40 starts at Hendrick Motorsports, and the start of the second act of his Cup career has not gone as he had hoped. But as long as he can survive the bumper-car style battle of attrition that Bristol always produces, I say he snags win No. 2 at Hendrick on Sunday.

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