The New Hampshire International Speedway has gone from being at best a rather boring track to being a track that has regularly showcased some of the Sprint Cup Series' finest racing in recent years. NHIS is quickly becoming one of those tracks that I really want to visit on race day before I either die or give up watching the sport.
We witnessed hard racing, not just for the lead, but well back in the pack yesterday. We saw the odds on favorite to win the Cup's race turn from bad to worse yesterday, when Kyle Busch had major suspension problems early in the race and saw him finish in 34th place, many laps down. We saw Greg Biffle, whom many didn't believe would even make the Chase a month or so ago, charge to the lead in the closing laps and win his first Cup race of the season. We saw the series' most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., take the lead for nearly 80 laps, only to lose it when he apparently received a bad set of tires on a pit stop.
To say that Dale Jr. was frustrated after losing the lead for good with the bad set of tires would be an understatement. As he is known to do during the heat of competition, he expressed his frustration roundly on the radio to crew chief Tony Eury Jr. It was at this point that owner Rick Hendrick stepped in. He talked to Dale Jr. on the radio, urging him to calm down, to not lose focus. Hendrick reassured Dale Jr. that he still had a good car, and he just needed to give Tony Jr. some feedback and to take out his frustration not on his crew chief, but on the cars ahead of him. Earnhardt seemed to respond to the coaching his owner was giving him, and rallied to finish 5th, his second solid top 5 finish in a row. Top 5 finishes are what got Dale Jr. to the position he's in, and it's good to see him return to that form once again.
True, a win would have been better than a top 5. I don't think anyone would dispute that. Dale Jr. says that he needs to be fired up inside the car sometimes, that it helps him keep his eye on the prize, as it were. I don't think any other driver would disagree with him about that. I do feel that it is important that the driver remain calm enough to help his crew chief sort though problems that the driver is having on the track though. I believe that this is an adjustment in the way Earnhardt Jr. has dealt with problems on the track in the past. I think it wise that one remember that until this year, Dale Jr. has rarely had an active owner talking to him on the radio during a race. Dale Jr. has long expressed his desire to have an owner at the track with him, to be able to talk to about the car, about the conditions of the track, to just be there as a cheerleader, if nothing else. Dale Earnhardt Jr. now has that in Rick Hendrick. Rick has made a commitment to give Dale Jr. whatever he needs to win, and now Dale Jr. needs to learn how to take the advantage of using what he's been given to do what he's there to do: Win.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a talented and driven race car driver, and he's still in his first season with a new organization. Old habits die hard, as they say. I agree with Rick Hendrick that Tony Jr. can probably help get the car better if he's not facing an onslaught of rants, but receiving solid information that will help him to make the call on adjustments that need to be made. In the past, at DEI, Dale Jr. and Tony Jr. were both basically men stranded on their own island, receiving apparently little in the way of direction from the higher ups at DEI. This year is different. They have an active, interested team owner who is willing to do whatever it takes to help them to reach the next level in NASCAR's most elite series, which is winning championships.
Rick Hendrick, in his 25 years as an owner in NASCAR Cup racing, has won a lot of championships. He knows how to get it done. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is having a great year, but he needs to know that he's not in it alone anymore. He's got the support, and he needs to know that if the car has problems, Tony Jr. and the crew will fix it. He's got to help them though, which he does, but he's got to realize that thousands, maybe millions of people are listening to his every word on the radio every week, and his words during the race can give the impression that he is not as happy with his crew chief as he says he is off the track. This leads to much of the criticism that Tony Jr. receives every week, from fans of Dale Jr. and from people who aren't fans at all. Fortunately, neither Dale Jr. or Tony Jr. appear to care what the arm chair crew chiefs think.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is tied for 4th place in points after New Hampshire. He is only 50 points behind the leaders. With the misfortunes of Kyle Busch on Sunday, he actually gained on the lead. Top 5 finishes are a good way to stay at the top of the points list, but Dale Jr. knows he's probably going to have to win at least one of the next 9 races in order to win the championship. If Dale Jr. will take a little of Rick Hendrick's advice, that task will be much easier.