Friday August 14th, 2009

For NASCAR's most popular driver, the numbers are numbing. It's now been 43 races since Dale Earnhardt Jr. last reached Victory Lane, 43 race weekends of enduring the same questions from fans and reporters: When will you win again, Junior? What's wrong, Junior? Do you think you're overrated, Junior?

But it gets worse. Before winning in June 2008 at Michigan, which is where the Cup circuit stops on Sunday afternoon, Little E hadn't taken the checkers in 76 races. So if you combine those two streaks, Earnhardt has a total of one victory in his last 120 races. Heck, those two streaks stretch back so far that Barack Obama hadn't even announced his candidacy for President -- by nearly a year -- when they began. To be precise, Earnhardt has one win since May 7, 2006.

"It's been a tough year, man," Earnhardt told reporters after his brakes went out last Sunday at Watkins Glen and he crashed hard into a barrier of tires and finished 39th. "I guess if I sat there and thought about all the bad things and got further down, it would just be a longer climb to get back."

Give Earnhardt credit for one thing: In spite of everything -- the crashes, the brain locks on pit road, the mechanical failures, and the unfathomable amount of bad racing luck he's encountered this season -- he's maintained a positive attitude. I was standing next to him before he hopped in his car at Indianapolis Motor Speedway a few weeks ago, and he joked and kidded around with me and a few others nearby as if he were leading the points, not stuck in 25th, which is where he is now. I haven't been told this, but I'm sure Rick Hendrick has had a sit-down with Junior and has emphasized the importance of remaining upbeat. Because if his crew senses that Junior has given up on the season, then these next 14 races could be even more disastrous for the No. 88 team than the first 22 of 2009.

The big question for this team now is this: Is Lance McGrew the long-term answer as Junior's crew chief? McGrew, you'll recall, replaced Earnhardt's cousin and longtime crew chief Tony Eury Jr. earlier this season, but the results since the shakeup haven't exactly been earth shattering. In fact, they've been worse. Earnhardt's average finish when Eury was on the pit box for the first 12 races of 2009 was 21.3; since McGrew took over ten races ago, Little E's average finish has been 24.9.

Clearly, McGrew and Earnhardt need more time to mesh and hone their communication skills -- i.e., McGrew needs to figure out what exactly Earnhardt means when he says the car is "wicked loose" in the entry of corner and what he needs to do the car to remedy the condition. McGrew also has been working overtime building brand new cars for Little E. And if you ask both of them point blank if the team is improving, they will swear it is, even if the results on the track haven't yet shown that. At this point, I think it would be a mistake for Hendrick to make another crew chief change this offseason; Earnhardt and McGrew need time to grow together and lay a solid foundation for 2010.

The question of the moment is this: Can Earnhardt end yet another winless streak at Michigan on Sunday? This race will probably come down to a game of fuel mileage like it did in June at Michigan when Mark Martin passed Jimmie Johnson and Greg Biffle on the last lap after they both ran out of gas. Junior won't make the Chase and has nothing to lose, so he'll be able to gamble on fuel late and try to steal a victory, which is exactly what he did at Michigan back in 2008.

But I like Martin to win at the two-mile oval. No one in the series has been better on flat tracks this year -- three of his series high four wins have come on low-banked tracks like Michigan -- and the fleet of Hendrick Chevys (minus Earnhardt's, that is) consistently have been the cars to beat this season on 1.5- and 2-mile tracks. Look for Martin and Jimmie Johnson to dominate the field on Sunday -- and for Earnhardt, once again, to struggle with the handling of his car. This, as we've learned, is a problem that isn't easily fixed.

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