Earnhardt slump might be nearing an end

BY Larry McReynolds • October 12, 2011

By winning last Sunday at Kansas, Jimmie Johnson gave Rick Hendrick and Hendrick Motorsports its 199th victory. Since we are in Charlotte this weekend and because of how well he ran in May here, a lot of the fans are excited about the thought that maybe Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be the one to get Mr. Hendrick his 200th win.

I have to be honest here, for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win on any given race day, at any racetrack, at any time of the season would be big in many ways. It would be big for him personally to finally put an end to his huge winless streak. I think it would be a tremendous sense of relief for crew chief Steve LeTarte that he was the one to finally get Dale Jr. back to Victory Lane. It obviously would be huge for NASCAR as well, since Dale Jr. hands down is our most popular driver.

Also think about what it would mean to the entire Junior Nation. His fans are tenacious. They never give up on him. That’s just the way NASCAR fans are when they pick a favorite driver. They support him or her through thick and thin. They never waver. Lastly, of course, you can’t overlook the significance of what this win would mean to Hendrick Motorsports.

While it would be nice to think that if you ran well or even won at a track in the spring, that you would enjoy the same success in the fall, that's not always the case. In fact, we don’t have to look any further than Dale Jr. for an example. On June 5, he finished second at Kansas. Sunday at the same track you saw him struggle even to stay in the top 15.

In today’s NASCAR the competition is so tight. Teams are constantly working and improving to try and catch the leader. For teams that find an edge, well it can mean a huge gain. Conversely, a minor setback can be a huge loss. In addition to that, don’t forget how much track conditions have changed from May to October at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

My point is when you factor it all in, I don’t believe it is a guarantee that Dale Jr. will run well this weekend. I don’t think it is a guarantee for any of the drivers out there. It’s just the way our sport is constantly changing and evolving. We can’t always point the finger at Dale Jr. as the only one with a winless streak.

Go look at the list of drivers who last year won a race and in some cases multiple races but still have yet to win in 2011. That list includes Jamie McMurray, Clint Bowyer, Juan Pablo Montoya and David Reutimann. In McMurray's case he won three times last year but hasn't this year. Clint Bowyer won twice last year and made the Chase. So far Bowyer has yet to visit Victory Lane and didn’t even make the Chase.

I spent some time earlier this week discussing Kasey Kahne. He couldn’t stress enough that to win in today’s NASCAR, everything has to be spot-on and almost perfect. The car, the pit crew, the calls by the crew chief on strategy all have to come together for a driver to reach Victory Lane.

Kahne is another driver on a long winless streak. He hasn't won in more than two years. Jeff Burton is sitting on a three-year skid. So you see that Dale Jr. is not alone when it comes to some of our sport's biggest names riding long losing streaks. His popularity and star-studded team have magnified his winless streak.

Jimmie Johnson is on one heck of a roll. He finished second at Dover and won at Kansas. Johnson currently has six wins at Charlotte Motor Speedway. If he wins Saturday night, he will break a three-way tie for most wins at Charlotte that he currently shares with NASCAR Hall of Famers Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison.

The thing to remember is while he has six wins there, the No. 48 team hasn't had a win since the fall 2009 race. Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus will be upfront and tell you that since Charlotte was repaved a few years ago, the No. 48 has lost the advantage it had on the old surface. So it will be interesting to see how he runs Saturday night. Johnson failed to finish one race this year — the Coca Cola 600 in May. He blew a motor with only 10 laps to go. I only bring that up because Sunday at Kansas, Hendrick Motorsports had an engine failure in the No. 24 car. So that definitely will be one of the storylines I am going to follow this weekend.

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