It’s time for Junior to turn things around

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 17, 2005

A two-race span of good finishes is hardy worthy of being called a hot streak, but after the season that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has had this year, he is on a &uot;hot streak.&uot; Junior was a surprise winner last week in Chicago and after a third place finish at Daytona, he is making a run at the chase. Based on his history at the mile and a half tracks, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who thought that Junior would have a good finish at Chicago, much less a win, but the Bud team used a little strategy and took home the checkered flag.

In the process, Junior has climbed to 13th in the point standings, 115 points out of 10th place and 91 points from the 400-point cutoff to be eligible for the chase.

After the race at Chicago, only the drivers in the top 10 will make the chase. Jimmie Johnson continues to sit atop the standings trailed by Greg Biffle, Tony Stewart, Rusty Wallace, and Elliott Sadler in the top five. Mark Martin, Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray, Jeremy Mayfield, and Kurt Busch round out the top 10. Only 128 points separate Wallace in fourth and Busch in 10th and with eight races left before the field is set, much could happen. Only the top three in points are virtually assured a spot in the chase.

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The biggest news over the past week on driver changes is the whispers that Martin might be reconsidering his retirement. Jamie McMurray has already been named to drive Jack Roush’s no. 6 car in 2007, but a driver is not in place for next year. Roush and the no. 6 team members have been nudging Martin to return to race next year and word is that Martin is seriously considering postponing his retirement.

Competitiveness is not the issue with Martin’s retirement; spending time with his family and being more involved with son Matt’s blooming racing career are the reasons he has chosen to retire from cup competition. I still believe that we will see McMurray in that car next year. One-year deals are not ideal for either Chip Ganassi, McMurray’s current team owner, or Roush.

Ford Motor Company announced this week that the new Fusion would be the car that we will see on the track in 2006. After 20 years of production, Ford is shelving the Taurus model and NASCAR requires that the car that is on the track must also be available on the sales floor. This will be the first time since the old Torino model in1968 that Ford introduced a new model and put the same car on the track at the same time. The Fusion is a pretty sharp looking car.

The series moves to New Hampshire International Speedway, a one-mile ultra-flat track, this week for the New England 300. Since racing began there in 1993, no one driver has been able to dominate this track. Eleven current drivers have won here in the past. Heck, Robby Gordon even won a race here back in 2001.

The parity goes even further in the Busch series; there have been 18 different winners in 18 races since 1993.

Jeff Burton leads all active drivers with four career wins here and it would be nice for the no. 31 to get back into victory lane. Burton desperately needs a win. Kurt Busch swept the races here last year and Johnson won both races in 2003.

My pick to win this race is Newman, who will return to the scene of his first cup victory back in 2002.

Race coverage begins at 1:30 p.m. and the green flag will drop at 2:15, all on TNT. Enjoy the race.

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.