Much to the chagrin of Earnhardt Nation and NASCAR, Dale Jr.’s slide continued on Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway.
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Earnhardt blew a tire on Lap 253 — with 13 laps remaining in the Quaker State 400 — and ended up with a 30th-place finish that cost him another position in the points standings.
The Hendrick Motorsports driver accepted full responsibility for his troubles after flat-spotting the tires coming to the pits.
“I slid the left front tire real bad coming on to pit road,” Earnhardt said. “It was all my fault.”
It’s been a tough four-race skid for Earnhardt, which has seen a drop from third to eighth in the points standings in the past three races.
His problems began at Michigan on June 19 when Hendrick Motorsports teammate Mark Martin nailed him in Turn 2 with eight laps remaining. While Earnhardt maintained third place in the standings, his 21st-place finish was a blow.
The following week, at Infineon Raceway, his car overheated 45 laps into the 110-lap race. The 41st-place finish was by far Earnhardt’s worst of the season. Consequently, he dropped to seventh in points — the lowest he’d been ranked since the sixth race of the season at Martinsville.
Although Junior anticipated a turnaround July 2 at Daytona — one of his favorite tracks where he has multiple victories in both Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series — it never materialized. The No. 88 Chevrolet led just one lap before he was collected in a multicar accident on the last lap. He finished 19th.
Earnhardt admitted it’s difficult not to think about his recent trying times.
“I hate what happened over the last couple of weeks and I look back with some regrets on how we finished our day in Sonoma and what we could have achieved if we had been more patient or tried to take better care of the car,” Earnhardt said. “You could have done a million different things at Daytona and I try not to dwell on that, but it’s hard.”
Despite an extra day of testing and having turned in top-10 finishes on all previous intermediate tracks leading to the inaugural Kentucky Speedway race on Saturday, Earnhardt could not find the setup he needed. He posted the slowest time of the four Hendrick cars in practice, started 29th on Saturday and never factored into the race until his damaged tire drew the fifth caution of the night.
He described the team’s effort at Kentucky as “OK” but was concerned about his car’s lack of speed.
“We just didn’t have a real good car — not as good as I thought,” Earnhardt said. “When we showed up we were real happy and we dialed ourselves out from there. We didn’t ride the bumps good. The car didn’t cut the corner good. We could change the balance, but it wouldn’t make us go faster; when we were too loose and we would tighten it up, we wouldn’t find any speed in that.
“So we just didn’t have a good setup in there for whatever reason. And we would have finished well if we could have gotten some track position. But, damn, we would never get it because it’s too hard to get. We were just so slow all night we could never take any chances on track position and stuff like that. We were just too slow. I don’t know. I was real disappointed though, overall.”
While Earnhardt has faced challenges of late, his performances had been consistent since the start of the season in relation to his Hendrick teammates.
Jeff Gordon has two wins this season, but only in the past three weeks has the No. 24 team broken through as a Chase contender. Jimmie Johnson has remained in the Chase Zone since Bristol with a variety of performances ranging from a victory at Talladega (Earnhardt had committed to push Johnson to the win) to three finishes of 20th or worse. Then there’s Mark Martin, a Hendrick lame duck with one top-five victory in 18 races.
Certainly, Steve Letarte has provided admirable leadership since becoming crew chief for Junior and the No. 88 team last November. The emotional roller coaster Earnhardt has endured in previous years has leveled out considerably.
And despite his previous three outings, Earnhardt remained upbeat when he arrived at Kentucky.
“We started the season really good,” Earnhardt said. “We’ve struggled the last couple of weeks, but, those two tracks, I had them kind of circled on my radar as weekends that might be hit or miss for us.
“So, hopefully, we can get back on track this weekend and start putting together a couple of more good weeks and try our best to lock ourselves into the Chase.”
But Earnhardt’s performance at the next four tracks — New Hampshire, Indianapolis, Pocono and Watkins Glen — will determine whether he is Chase-worthy in 2011.
Earnhardt has not won at any of those tracks, but he has two top-five finishes in his past five starts at New Hampshire, so the flat 1-miler is a track where he can turn his luck around.
Last year he posted an average finish of sixth at Loudon. He said the key to success there is “just rolling through the center" of the corner.
“It sounds kind of simple and we talk about it all the time,” Earnhardt said. “But just getting fast there is about getting through the middle of the corner and getting the car to rotate, turn and go the other direction.”
In 11 starts at Indianapolis, Earnhardt has recorded only two top-10 finishes. His career best came in 2006, when he finished sixth, but his overall average is 22.2. He finished 27th at the Brickyard last year.
Junior’s sixth-place finish at Pocono last month was his seventh top-10 finish at the track. But it’s been hit or miss in his 23 starts. His average finish on the 2.5-miler is 17.4.
How does Earnhardt feel about Watkins Glen? His disdain was apparent Friday when he said, “I hate road courses.” That’s understandable, considering his 22nd-place average finish at the Glen. He qualified 40th in 2010 and finished 28th. His best showing, third place, occurred in 2003.
If Earnhardt can survive the following four races, there are brighter skies ahead. Michigan, Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond have all been winners for NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver.
And then there’s the Chase, where Junior will have five intermediate tracks — he has an average finish of 4.75 — plus Talladega, Martinsville and Phoenix in his favor. So 2011 could prove to be one of Earnhardt’s best seasons in a long, long time.
“You think about it, but what’s done is done. You’ve just kind of got to try to move forward and not let it really bother you too much and try to put together a good weekend,” Earnhardt said. “Maybe two or three or four good weekends in a row and try to change the picture of the points system for yourself five weeks from now and, hopefully, a better spot.
"I feel fortunate to still be where I am in the points (standings) and still have opportunity to be in the Chase this year and want to try to put together the best several weeks, the next eight or nine weeks, I can to make sure that happens. I think we can do that. I think we are a good enough team to do that.”