There has been a lot of buzz in the media and on the message boards over the last few weeks about the lackluster performance of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the 88 team. Crew chief Tony Eury Jr. has received much of the blame for the team's performance. Some of that blame can certainly be justified, but there have been many factors that have caused problems lately with the 88 team.
Earnhardt Jr. is desperately seeking a return to the early days of the season, where consistency was a hallmark of his on track performance. These days, it's not even so much about getting a win, but finishing in the top 10. Though a win at any time is a welcome event, right now the team needs to regain the consistency that it had earlier this season.
This week, the NASCAR traveling road show once again rolls into Fontana, California for the second race date at this 2 mile track. California was the site of one of Dale Jr.'s rare early season disasters. Caught up in a spin that started with teammate Casey Mears' spin, Earnhardt crashed, and had to eventually finish a many times red flagged race many laps down. Earnhardt hopes to break the trend of what has become a series of heartbreaks at California. Historically, California is not a track at which one would expect Dale Jr. to make a comeback.
Though there are problems with the 88 program, all is not lost. Though he's had only one top 10 finish since his win at Michigan, Dale Jr. has finished every race this season. Before any driver can win races, he has to finish them, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been finishing them. Even with the disappointing finishes, Dale Jr. remains in 3rd place in points. In order to clinch a spot in the Chase for the Cup, Dale Jr. only has to finish 40th or better on Sunday at California.
So far this year, Dale Jr. has not lost an engine during a race, a problem which basically doomed his chances of making the Chase last year. Dale Jr. is definitely racing with better equipment and better engineering this year than was available at Dale Earnhardt Inc. last year. Though many question his decision to bring in Tony Eury Jr. to be his crew chief, that decision was Dale Jr.'s and so far, their track record at Hendrick Motorsports is not really a bad one, with all things considered. Being 3rd in points, 24 races into the season, is a position that many other drivers would very much like to be in.
There basically is no reason for the doom and gloom, Dale Jr. fans. Yes, there have been missed opportunities, but we should all remember the high points that this season has shown us as well. A pole at Texas, a win at Michigan, and many, many laps led at other tracks is a huge improvement for Dale Jr. compared to the last couple of years. A position in the Chase is all but assured, and there have been other years when a chance at the Chase was either a long shot, or a total impossibility at this point in the season. Dale Jr. and the 88 team are alive and well, and is still a major threat to win all the marbles in 2008. Do they need to improve? Of course they do. There's always room for improvement in any program. Dale Jr. has the ability to overcome tough situations though, so it's still a little too early to count him out.
On a side note, NASCAR has placed Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards on probation through the end of the year as a result of their post race antics at Bristol on Saturday. Though many consider this a very minor slap on the wrist, or even a joke, I believe it is wise to think about the future implications of this ruling by the sanctioning body.
Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards are 1st and 2nd in points currently. Should any of Bristol's bad feelings spill over into another race, it's possible that NASCAR will penalize either or both of them with points, or, horror of horrors, being parked for a race. We all know that Kyle and Carl have anger management issues on the track. They have them off the track at times as well. I think it's just a matter of time before one or both of these personalities boils over and they do something that NASCAR might frown upon. Another scuffle like they had at Bristol will almost undoubtedly lead to much harsher penalties. Or will it? Since we're talking about the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, who knows?
The fun is just beginning! Let's see just how big this little rivalry will get. If either one gets a hefty points penalty, Dale Jr. and the rest of the Chase drivers will benefit from it.