Better for Junior to miss Chase playoffs

BY foxsports • September 8, 2011

Barring a wreck, blown engine or some other catastrophic development Saturday night at Richmond, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. will back into the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

However, it might be better if he simply falls out of the top 10 in points and doesn't make it.

The way he's been running lately, he has no chance of winning the Sprint Cup championship anyway, so what's the point?

If he's just going to run around and struggle week after week, looking nothing like a championship contender or a driver who belongs in NASCAR's 12-driver Chase, potentially embarrassing himself and his team, wouldn't it be better if he simply didn't make it?

He conceded as much after yet another disappointing run last week at Atlanta.

"I'm not really worried about it," Earnhardt said about making the Chase. "I don't have room to worry about it as bad as we've been running.

"We need to get our crap together and get to running good or it don't matter where we are in the Chase. It don't matter if we are in it or not."

With one race remaining before the playoffs begin, nine of the 12 Chase drivers have already been determined, with Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch clinching spots last week and Brad Keselowski wrapping up one of the two wild cards.

Barring major problems, Tony Stewart and Earnhardt will get the other two top-10 spots while Denny Hamlin is the leading contender to earn the other wild card.

There's a big difference, though, between Stewart, Hamlin and Earnhardt.

Stewart, a two-time champion, has been wildly inconsistent this year, hasn't won a race and has had some uncharacteristically poor performances (27th at Watkins Glen, 28th at Bristol).

But Stewart also has shown hints of turning things around. He finished second in July at New Hampshire, ninth three weeks ago at Michigan and had an encouraging third-place run last week at Atlanta. Everyone knows Stewart could turn things around at any moment and recapture the magic that's won him two titles and made him a perennial championship contender.

Hamlin proved last year he can contend for the title, holding the points lead going into the final race of the season. Though he's struggled this season, he has a win and enters Richmond, the final race of the 26-race regular season, with consecutive top-10 finishes.

Stewart and Hamlin both appear to be stepping up and making progress at a critical time, giving them a good shot at making the Chase and hope of possibly being a contender.

Earnhardt is headed in the other direction, appearing to have no such hope.

After missing the Chase the past two years, Junior got off to a great start this season with new crew chief Steve Letarte and looked like he finally was going to live up to expectations at Hendrick Motorsports.

He almost won at Martinsville, Charlotte and Kansas and had eight top-10 finishes in the first 14 races of the season, climbing as high as third in points. He not only looked like a shoo-in to return to the Chase for the first time since 2008, he and Letarte looked like they had some special chemistry that might make them legitimate title contenders.

Now, three months later, Junior's outlook is nearly as bleak as it was in 2009 and 2010, the two most disappointing seasons of his career.

Earnhardt has just one top-10 finish (ninth at Pocono) in his last 11 races to fall from third to ninth in points. For some reason, he and Letarte have lost the edge they had during the first half of the season and now appear to be out in left field.

And the thing that is perhaps most discouraging is that during the slump, they have just two really bad finishes by something going wrong — a blown engine at Sonoma and a flat tire at Kentucky.

In the other nine races, Earnhardt's performance simply has been mediocre, which is perhaps the worst place to be for a driver with championship aspirations. In most races, he's run between 15th to 20th, not good enough to be a top-10 team, but not bad enough to just tear things up and start over.

Now he might sneak into the Chase, which might be the worst thing that could happen to him and his team.

Instead of struggling during the Chase, just trying to make some progress and log some top-10 finishes and hoping he doesn't finish last among the 12 title contenders, he and Letarte could be regrouping, experimenting and planning for next season, trying to somehow recapture the magic they had earlier this season.

And maybe they could take some gambles like they did earlier in the season in an effort to win a race for the first time in three years.

Every year, it seems, there's a driver who slips into the Chase, then runs like he doesn't belong there — Jeff Burton last year, Brian Vickers in 2009, Earnhardt in 2008 and Martin Truex, Jr. in 2007.

In 2011, it looks like it'll be Earnhardt — again.

Earnhardt's right to be frustrated and realistic about his chances. He seemed so close to turning things around and realizing his vast potential at Hendrick.

Now, just as teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon seem to be peaking as the Chase nears, things once again seem to have gone awry.

NASCAR needs Earnhardt to be relevant, to be a driver who can win races and be a legitimate championship contender, or at least a driver worthy of a spot in the Chase.

He not only has the sport's largest fan base, but has practically everyone in the sport, or everyone even casually associated with it, pulling for him, including most rival drivers.

Watching him struggle and fail again is sad, depressing and discouraging.

Watching it continue throughout the Chase would be like pouring salt in the wound.

Sadly, it looks like he will make the Chase, though it might be better for him and everyone else if he didn't.


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