Sunday morning there was a buzz in the garage with a bent decidedly leaning toward Dale Earnhardt Jr.
OK, from about the moment the transporters rolled into the garage, talk of the four-year anniversary of NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver permeated conversations and lines of questioning of other competitors. This was nothing new at Michigan International Speedway, or a lot of other places where Junior had excelled in the past, such as restrictor-plate or short tracks.
But as the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team picked up steam this season — and one top 10 after another — it became clear that Dale Earnhardt Jr. was a weekly contender at Daytona International Speedway and even Dover International Speedway.
While the Junior Express storyline at Michigan International Speedway was sidetracked by 200-plus-mph speeds, a new tire compound and a cameo by Bad Kurt Busch over the weekend, once race-day morning arrived and a couple of engines were changed, the black No. 88 Chevrolet became the topic of conversation again.
“A win for Dale Jr. would be a win for all of us,” said a friend.
Before skeptics start speculating that the message came from NASCAR or Chevrolet or Hendrick Motorsports, stop. The wish for Junior’s success came from a specialist who works on another team with another manufacturer.
He’s right. Like Tiger Woods winning a PGA event, Tim Tebow finding success in the NFL or LeBron James finally winning a championship, there are moments that are good for sports in general.
It’s also good for cynics who looked at Junior’s arrival at Hendrick Motorsports in 2008 as simply a souvenir grab to eat their words. Yes, the proceeds from sales of Junior T-shirts and die-casts could feed a small country. But Rick Hendrick’s commitment to turn the No. 88 team around has come to fruition.
And for those who insist the fix was in on Sunday, know this: If there was such a thing as ‘a fix,’ NASCAR would have fixed Junior’s winless drought long before now.
So for the ABJer’s (Anybody But Junior) — including Tony Stewart, who stirred things up with postrace comments questioning the significance of the win — suck it up. Sunday was a holiday for Junior Nation, and for many in NASCAR, particularly because Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte are on a roll. Their average finish of 7.4 is no fluke.
“For me it is (a holiday),” Junior said with a laugh. “It feels good to win, and I’ll enjoy it, and in a day or two, I’ll be thirsty for the next one.”
Letarte would have been relieved for the group to win in its first season together in 2011 because he’s not sure they “had the speed last year” to accomplish the task. However, for both crew chief and driver, there’s the thrill of knowing that they’re just getting started.
“We had some good runs and we had some good cars; we had some consistency, but not like this year,” Letarte said. “I’m a true believer in statistics, and I don’t think it’s luck. I think you make your own luck. You get bad breaks along the way, but if you have a strong enough race team, and strong enough cars, then even the bad luck can’t hold you down forever, and I think this year, we have earned this win.”
Earnhardt had three top fives and eight top 10s in the first 15 races of 2011. He’d led just 42 laps. While the team was consistent enough to remain third in the points standings, there was never the sense that the 88 team was a contender. This year, Earnhardt’s numbers are real and so is the threat. Six top fives, 12 top 10s and 218 laps led in the first 15 races are solid numbers.
Understandably, Letarte and Earnhardt are relieved to get the win behind them. But the anticipation of this team’s potential — owner Rick Hendrick called their chemistry “the best I’ve seen between any crew chief and driver” — is a reason for “excitement.”
“When you start to have winning cars, and then you finally win, it’s excitement,” Letarte said. “ I don’t think it’s relief. Because now you have winning cars and you know that the hard work is paying off.
“That’s why we are going to enjoy the win, but we are going to enjoy it to a point to where there’s a lot of trophies left to get, and we want to get some more.”
“I thought it would be all relief,” Junior said. ”But it was no relief at all; it was excitement.”
What other drivers could use a little excitement in their lives? Here are five Sprint Cup drivers who need to end their winless streaks:
1. Jeff Burton
With a 127-race winless streak, the 45-year-old Richard Childress Racing driver is quickly approaching Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s former numbers — and there appears to be no relief in sight. Although sponsor Caterpillar has two more years on its contract, a blue-chip sponsor needs a blue-chip driver, and Burton’s numbers over the past four years are short of remarkable. He and new crew chief Drew Blickensderfer started the season strong with a fifth-place finish at Daytona and a sixth-place run at Bristol, but in the past 11 races he has posted just one top 10, at Talladega. Burton is mathematically tied for 20th in the points standings and led just 34 laps this year. Certainly, two engine failures have not helped the cause. But team owner Richard Childress has grandsons Austin and Ty Dillon waiting in the wings. If Burton doesn’t mash the gas, he won’t be welcomed in Welcome, N.C., much longer.
2. AJ Allmendinger
Of the offseason moves, Allmendinger’s partnering with team owner Roger Penske seemed like a match made in open-wheel heaven. However, pairing the driver with a rookie Sprint Cup crew chief was a baffling decision from the start. The parts failures under Todd Gordon’s watch have been numerous and, unfortunately, there are not asterisks next to Allmendinger’s statistics that tell the tale. Allmendinger, 30, displayed marked improvement at every rung of the racing ladder. So why are his wheels spinning now? Gordon had difficulty keeping the car dialed in throughout the course of Nationwide Series races with Brad Keselowski. However, the shorter events and BK’s talent could overcome some of the poor decisions. That’s not going to happen in lengthy Cup events. As Allmendinger’s winless streak continues to grow — and as of Sunday that number reached 167 — it will start chipping away at his confidence. And that’s certainly not good for a racer.
3. Martin Truex Jr.
Truex Jr. has been one of the pleasant surprises of 2012. This contract year has the 32-year-old driver displaying his best talents on and off the track. His second year with crew chief Chad Johnston has paid dividends not just for the No. 56 NAPA team but for all of Michael Waltrip Racing. Truex’s climb to second in the points standings after the race at Kansas Speedway was a career best for both him and the company. The 303 laps he’s led in the first 15 races of 2012 is more than in all but one of his seven full Sprint Cup seasons. The exception was in 2007, the last year in which Truex won, 182 races ago. Entering the season, most would have bet on Clint Bowyer to cross the finish line first among the MWR drivers since he won last fall at Talladega. While Bowyer has certainly served as a catalyst for Truex’s renewed desire to be up on the wheel, it’s the old man Mark Martin who’s showing the youngsters a thing or several. Martin, even on a part-time basis, jelled quickly with crew chief Rodney Childers and has been consistent despite two engine failures. With Martin on hiatus for the next five races, this could be Truex’s time to shine.
4. Jeff Gordon
Guess who’s the only driver not to win at Hendrick Motorsports this season? Yes, that would be Jeff Gordon. Good ol’ four-time has endured his share of bad luck in 2012, although he’ll tell you he doesn’t believe in misfortune. So, here’s the reality: an engine failure at Daytona, multiple on-track incidents, pit-road problems and the big one at Talladega Superspeedway have Gordon mired at 20th in the points standings. The champ is savvy enough to know at this stage of the season that winning is his only hope to gain access to the Chase for the Sprint Cup — a feat he’s accomplished every year since the inception of the program except 2005, when Gordon finished 11th. Consequently, NASCAR increased the Chase field to 12 the following year. However, this season Gordon is thinking wild card, and the only way he’ll be eligible for that is to put an end to his 26-race winless streak. His home track of Sonoma, where Gordon has five wins in 19 starts, would be a good place to start.
5. Kurt Busch
Ah Kurt, good, bad or indifferent, the sport needs you. But you are not bigger than the sport. And after team owner James Finch offered a reprieve last week after NASCAR’s suspension, you laid low, concentrated on your job and posted a solid third-place finish in the Nationwide Series race against teams that were far more established than your own. Certainly, your talent carried you through. While there are conflicting views of why post interviews did not happen on pit road, the entourage shepherded you into the media center — according to NASCAR obligations. Unfortunately, the verbal sparring with a media member could have been avoided had the postrace press conference started on time and you had not overheard reports that you allegedly blew off electronic media on pit road. But the bottom line is, it should have been avoided by you. Sticks and stones, Kurt. You’ve heard the trash-talk before. Ignore it. Walk away. Don’t react and let your actions become fodder for the next headline or YouTube video. Remember how good the Nationwide win felt at Richmond? It’s time to make that happen in Cup. No, the equipment and the team isn’t what you once had, but their support is genuine. Right now, the winless streak is 21 races or 20 starts for you. But you have to be present to win. And as you painfully found out during Pocono, the sport will go on without you.