Is it too late to save Junior’s season?

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 6, 2005

Several weeks back, I wrote that I had a bad feeling about Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s season and the path that it was taking. I thought that when Junior was floundering in 27th place after the fourth race of the year. Over the next several races, it looked like the number eight team might have found the answer and was turning things around. Junior jumped up to as high as ninth in the points. Things were returning to normal.

Now, in the past week, Junior fired his crew chief, wrecked his teammate at Charlotte, and has fallen to 15th in the points standings. Pete Rondeau, the fired crew chief, has not had the most complementary things to say about Junior and DEI since being let go last week. Let’s face it, the experiment of swapping teams with Michael Waltrip in the off-season didn’t work and it looks like Junior is in panic mode.

At Charlotte last Sunday, both Waltrip and Junior were running in the top 10 when Junior punted Waltrip into the wall. That unexplainable tap put Waltrip out of the race and killed Junior’s chances as well.

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Did Junior wreck Waltrip on purpose? I don’t think so. Intentional crashes on this level are few and far between, but the way that Tony Eury, Sr. reacted speaks volumes as to the state of DEI right now.

I make it no secret that Junior is my driver of choice, but it is obvious that he has a lot of growing up to do. The reason given for the swap of teams was that Junior and the team of Tony Eury, Sr. and Tony Eury, Jr. could not get along. The outbursts between these guys are reportedly legendary. That team helped Junior win two Busch Championships and 15 Nextel Cup races.

Along the way, Junior has become NASCAR’s most high profile driver. Does his last name have something to do with his popularity? Absolutely it does, but you can’t argue with his success. The only person that can argue with his success is Junior himself.

Everyone works with people that they don’t necessarily like, but you put that stuff aside and do what is best for all involved. In this case, it is DEI. I hope Junior understands that fact.

This is a critical stretch of the season for Junior and the Bud team. After Charlotte, he sits in 15th position in the points standings. This week’s race in Dover is the 13th of the season, half-way to determining who will compete in the chase. Also in Charlotte, Junior heard jeers and boos from the crowd, something he is not used to hearing. Steve Hmiel, Junior’s new crew chief, better be a miracle worker if that team has a prayer of making the cut.

The next race on the schedule is the Monster Mile at Dover. This is a real fast mile-long track that produces great racing. Mark Martin and Ryan Newman won the races here last year and will be strong again at this race. Look for Kasey Kahne to become a two-time Cup winner this Sunday. He is my pick to win.

The race coverage begins at 1 p.m. on FX network. Enjoy the race and I’ll see you next week.

Jeff Findley is the publisher of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald in Ahoskie, N.C.

His racing column regularly appears in newspapers across the Southeast. He can be reached by e-mail at jeff.