Rick Hendrick vowed to return Dale Earnhardt Jr. to Victory Lane.
Alas, for Junior Nation, much like Chicago Cub fans, you’ll have to wait until next year — again.
At least Earnhardt can take comfort in winning the Most Popular Driver award for a ninth consecutive year. But because he’s a racer, that won’t be enough to satisfy Earnhardt. It’s been 129 races since NASCAR’s favorite son won a Sprint Cup race. And that’s 129 races too long.
It’s been one year since Hendrick set out to jump-start the programs of Junior and Jeff Gordon. He rotated three of his drivers — Earnhardt, Gordon and lame duck Mark Martin — with different squads under the HMS umbrella. Earnhardt’s pairing with crew chief Steve Letarte was magic. As Hendrick promised, Letarte’s personality complemented Junior’s.
After three mediocre seasons behind the wheel of the No. 88 Chevrolet, Earnhardt found someone he could rely on and trust within the Hendrick organization. While Earnhardt believed in Tony Eury Jr., his former crew chief and a cousin, Eury was never a Hendrick insider. Letarte eased the reclusive Earnhardt out of his shell — and out of the NASCAR driver motorcoach lot on the weekends.
The relationship blossomed and the dividends paid off. But after Earnhardt’s fourth and final top-five finish in the first race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup at Chicagoland Speedway, the driver and the team appeared to run out of gas.
Earnhardt finished seventh in the points standings, his best finish in six seasons. But, he did not surpass the numbers amassed during his first season with Eury. In 2008, the No. 88 team won at Michigan, scored 10 top-fives, 16 top-10s and led 896 laps.
This year, Earnhardt earned four top-fives and 12 top-10s. But the most glaring statistic is the number of laps Earnhardt led: 52. That’s the fewest number of laps he’s led since he began racing the Cup full time in 2000.
His qualifying effort didn’t help. Earnhardt’s average starting position was 19.6. In Junior’s first season at Hendrick Motorsports, he started a career best of 10.3. Starting mid-pack every week means Earnhardt must battle his way to the front. And if he can’t reach the front, he won’t contend for wins.
When Earnhardt was in contention, his pit crew often let him down. With track positions so difficult to achieve in NASCAR’s top series, a driver hoping to be a perennial Chase candidate needs over-the-wall support to back him up.
Still, Hendrick is encouraged that Earnhardt “ran better this year than he did the year before”. But the boss — and 10-time Cup championship owner — understands there’s room for improvement.
“The most exciting part of that relationship is it takes five or six months for a crew chief and a driver to see if they can work together,” Hendrick said. “And they’ll have a lot of tolerance of each other early on. And then toward the end of the first year, you kind of find out what you really have. These two guys really like working with each other. I’ve seen some really good runs and then some areas where we’ve kind of fumbled the ball a little bit. From where I sit, and as far as those two guys and our whole company feel, we’ve got a good combination there, and it’ll get better.
“You just don’t go from running 15th and 18th to be winning every race or winning four or five races. I think what we said we needed to do was finish in the points, up in the Chase, lead some laps, be in a position to win some races, and we were in a position to win two or three races and didn’t get it done. I’m happy with the progress and looking forward to next year. I think we’ll be better still.”
Think of it as baby steps. Establish a foundation, then build on it. Letarte has not only provided Earnhardt with a foundation, he’s developed a situation where his driver can feel comfortable. And that’s been a missing element for Earnhardt the past two years.
Junior had mixed emotions as the season was ending — a very different sentiment from his usual "get the hell out of dodge" attitude.
“You’re going to miss racing,” Earnhardt said. “You’re going to miss driving. You’re going to miss working with your team and your guys.
“We would definitely liked to have won a race, and opportunities to do that are running low. As far as the points go, I think we made a decent account of ourselves, but I do feel like, and I think our team understands that we’re better than even where we are now in the points standings. We feel confident that we can improve.”
And for the fans who elected Junior the Most Popular Driver nine seasons straight, that’s all they can ask for — well, maybe optimism and eventually a return to victory lane.