Junior’s in a chase all by himself

For the third time in six years, NASCAR’s title Chase goes on without Dale Earnhardt Jr. No driver, though, has as much at stake these final 10 races as Earnhardt.

Teetering on the edge of mediocrity, he has been among the sport’s biggest disappointments this season. Pit-road mistakes turned him into a punchline early in the season. Kyle Busch mocked his performance and ridiculed his fans. Even some Earnhardt supporters questioned their driver.

“Most of the criticism was definitely deserved,” Earnhardt says.

A crew chief change came after Earnhardt and his cousin all but gave each other the silent treatment in their final race together. Lance McGrew provides a glimmer of hope as the new crew chief but work remains. Earnhardt hates how these cars race — he implored NASCAR last month to make changes to the car.

While his teammates win poles and races, Earnhardt often runs mid-pack dogged by an inability to make these finicky cars better. It was only about 15 months ago, Earnhardt was leading laps often. At one point early last season, he was Hendrick Motorsports’ top team. No more.

These final 10 races are critical because Earnhardt cannot afford to repeat this miserable season — on pace to be one of his worst in Cup, if not the worst. It’s hard to be popular and command the sponsorship money he does when you don’t win or at least stay competitive every week.

Earnhardt heads to New Hampshire Motor Speedway this weekend with one win in the last 124 races. While Earnhardt fans can question the equipment he had during part of that stretch, anyone not named Earnhardt would likely have lost their job with such a record. Twenty-three drivers have won at least one race during that stretch. Fifteen drivers have won more than one race in that time.

Thus begins Earnhardt’s personal Chase. It starts at the same place where car owner Rick Hendrick was critical of Earnhardt’s demeanor on the radio a year ago.

That day, Earnhardt led 79 laps but, as happens more times than not, his car did not improve as the race progressed.

A frustrated Earnhardt yelled and complained on the radio. Hendrick tried to calm him. At one point, Earnhardt said: “I need to find a motorsport that runs half the race and I’ll be champion.”

He needs something else and he needs to find it fast.

“Next year is a telltale year for Dale Earnhardt Jr.,” says FOX analyst and former crew chief Larry McReynolds. “He’s got to win some races and he’s got to become a contender.

“It will be his third year (at Hendrick Motorsports). It will be the first full year with Lance. It’s time to produce. I don’t care how popular you are. It’s time to produce. I bet nobody knows that better than he does.”

Although Earnhardt’s performance has been up-and-down, Hendrick officials say that McGrew will finish the year as crew chief.

A recent run showed promise of a turnaround before his flat performance at Richmond. Earnhardt finished third at Michigan in August and followed it with a ninth-place finish at Bristol. He was headed for a top-10 finish at Atlanta until his car’s handling soured and he lost seven spots in the last 11 laps. Then at Richmond, where he has three Cup wins, he ran near a struggling Matt Kenseth deep in the pack part of the race before finishing 21st.

Even so, Hendrick officials see signs of progress.

“We need to figure out the way we’re running,” says Doug Duchardt, vice president of development at Hendrick Motorsports. “There’s a good rapport with him and Lance and there’s been the performance in the car. I feel like that group is getting more confidence and feeling better about how they’re doing.”

The Richmond performance was a setback. The key for this team is to not let that snowball but to show improvement at New Hampshire. That will take Earnhardt telling McGrew what the car is doing.

“The one thing that I hear when I listen to Dale Jr. on the radio … he struggles giving good, solid, concise information about his car,” said McReynolds, who was the crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Sr. when he won the 1998 Daytona 500. “I’ll be honest with you, his dad did, too.”

Earnhardt’s tantrums on the radio are less frequent with McGrew than with Tony Eury Jr. Earnhardt and Eury were known to yell at each other at times, making their radio channel among the sport’s most entertaining.

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Things finally reached a point where Hendrick had to separate the cousins. Earnhardt ran poorly in the Coca-Cola 600 but radio conversations between him and Eury often were limited. The end had come in their working relationship.

“I’m my own worst enemy, I guess in the middle part of a race when I see us not going to the right direction, and I know how difficult and how much of a challenge it is to keep track position,” Earnhardt says. “I just get so frustrated.

“I’ve been trying to work really hard to be the same person at the end of the race that I am at the start of the race mentally. That really helps them stay focused on their job and working on the car instead of having to control me and my problems.”

It’s one thing to be calm. It’s another to give the feedback a crew chief needs to decide what changes to make.

Of course, Earnhardt isn’t the only driver fighting to make this car better. It spans the garage. Even Kyle Busch, noted as being among the more technical drivers, says he struggles to diagnose what the car needs and that cost him a spot in this year’s Chase. Earnhardt’s teammate, Jeff Gordon, went winless last year as he couldn’t make the car comfortable for his driving style.

So, how does Earnhardt improve?

Former champion Rusty Wallace, who admits it’s going to take the rest of this season for Earnhardt to turn things around, says the solution is simple in a way.

“I would say be at the shop all you possibly can,” Wallace says. “Talk to your competitors. Ask good questions. Don’t feel you are above asking a question. Just keeping asking questions.”

Wallace is confident, based on what he’s seen this season, that Earnhardt will be more successful next season.

“Now, they’ve got a hell of a notebook on what worked and what didn’t work,” Wallace says. “He really should be better next year based on all the notes he’s gathered from what went wrong this year.”

Earnhardt better be. Hendrick Motorsports is all about championships, having won the last three consecutive titles. One win in nearly two years with that organization does not measure up to those standards.

Dustin Long covers NASCAR for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., the Roanoke (Va.) Times and the News and Record in Greensboro, N.C.