Monday, June 11, 2012

Will Junior Ever Win Again?

Junior remains the fan's favorite, but will he ever win again?
The most dramatic moment of the Pocono 400 came not when Joey Logano nudged aside Mark Martin on his way to his first “non-rain” win.  It took place afterwards as Dale Earnhardt, Jr., struggled to explain how he had lost yet another one.

It is exactly four years ago this weekend at Michigan – 143 races – since Earnhardt last won.  He won that race on fuel strategy.  You have to go back to the May Richmond race in 2006 for his next victory.  So he’s won two races in six long years. 

Ahead of him is a week of questioning about when he’ll win again, something he had hoped to eliminate with a victory at Pocono.  But the question may really be not when Junior will win again -- but if. 

He was oh-so-close.  He led 38 laps in the race, second only to Logano, and at times appeared to have a dominate race car.  He was leading with 35 laps remaining when the caution came out.  Everyone pitted for fuel and most everyone thought they’d be about five laps short on fuel without another yellow.  When a second caution came out, Earnhardt and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon both pitted again to top off their tanks.  Most everyone else – including Logano – stayed on the track, hoping for more cautions even though Pocono is known more for long green flag runs than cautions.  While Earnhardt approved the move over his in-car radio, the TNT broadcast crew questioned the decision to pit at length.

Earnhardt was 16th on the restart and started to fight his way back.  But the caution on which Earnhardt pitted had run long and a second late caution for debris provided the slow laps everyone else needed to finish.  Earnhardt ended up 8th, his 11th top 10 performance of the year, more than any other driver.  With just 12 races until The Chase begins, Earnhardt is all but locked in, even without a victory.  He actually moved up a spot in the overall point standings to second behind Matt Kenseth. 

But the lack of a victory is obviously wearing on Earnhardt. 

When the television cameras caught up with him afterwards, he was distracted by a commotion in the garage area.   He also appeared to be fighting with his emotions and silent when asked if the fuel strategy cost him the race.  Then on live TV, he asked to start over, complete with a second drink of Mountain Dew while the question was being asked. 

"We just didn’t want to run out of gas,” he finally said.  “I didn’t know the caution flags were gonna be so long.  They were long enough to help those guys make it on fuel and we just didn’t.  We’re not able to take those kind of chances – just yet.”

Later Earnhardt seemed to be feeling better and said all the right things, about how he supported the call to pit by crew chief Steve Letarte.  He should.  Letarte has made the right call in race after race this year.

“I like the call we made today,”  he said.  “We raced back up to eighth and didn’t win the race -- might not have won the race.  We might have run third.  I don’t know.   But it was the right call for us at this time.  We had a really, really good car.  That was fun.  That was the fastest car I’ve had all year and the best car I’ve had a Pocono in a long, long time.  So I’m just really trying not to be too upset about it because we did a lot of good things today and we’ve got a lot to look forward to.”
OK, that’s the upbeat Junior we’ve seen this year.  But will he ever win again?

I've still got to believe he will.  His team and his equipment are too good.  But most of all, he's too good a driver not to win.  He made a remarkable three-car wide pass at Pocono that reminded everyone just good he is.

Maybe it's time to start taking a few chances and Michigan just might be the place.  Like Pocono, it's been recently repaved and promises to be very, very fast.  With his place in The Chase all but clinched, the smart move now is to go for the maximum bonus points and that means winning races -- and taking a few chances if necessary. 

Officials have hand in Pocono, Texas decisions
Race officials played a key role in both the NASCAR and IndyCar races this weekend.

At Pocono, NASCAR handed out a record 22 speeding tickets to 15 different drivers for exceeding the pit road speed limit, resulting in stop-and-go penalties.  Jimmy Johnson was nabbed twice, but still finished fourth.

In Texas, race director Beaux Barfield made the gutsy call to black flag leader Will Power for blocking a hard charging Tony Kanaan.

The Texas IndyCar race has been a point of controversy since Dan Waldon was killed at Las Vegas last year, a sister track to Texas.  While Vegas was dropped from the 2012 schedule, IndyCar decided to go ahead with the Texas race, to the chargin of some of the series’ top drivers, who didn’t like the 200+ mph pack racing the track was known for.  There was even talk of a driver boycott.

All the drivers gathered a week ago prior to the Detroit race and decided to ask for less downforce for Texas in hopes of breaking up the packs.  The new aero package provided the desired effect, with drivers able to run side-by-side, but not two-wide and eight deep, nose-to-tail. 

It was a nice win for Justin Wilson, who moved to the lead when Graham Rahal hit the wall coming to the white flag.  Rahal held on to finish second and give Honda a one-two finish, the third consecutive win for Honda after Chevrolet opened the season with four straight years. 

Not surprisingly, Wilson liked the new car configuration, saying the race “was a lot of fun.  You had to manage the tires, the grip.  I had a blast out there."

James Hinchcliffe summed it up nicely.

“It was hard to drive these cars.  It was still sort of scary in a way. This Texas you were worried about your car coming back in one piece.  The old kind of racing you worried about yourself coming back in one piece.

It will be interesting to see if IndyCar returns to Texas in 2013 – or even if the series is invited back.  All the pre-race chatter hurt attendance,  obviously down from past years.  IndyCar has already fired a warning shot at the track, scheduling a race next year through the streets of Houston and reportedly talking with the new Austin track about a future race.  So don’t be too surprised if the track decides an IndyCar race just isn’t worth it.

Finally, the wacky F1 season continued with Lewis Hamilton winning in Montreal race, the seventh winner in seven races.


  1. One has to wonder when and if it will happen again. Nice article.

  2. The odd me that Earnhardt is in contention for a championship. I realize there are alot of races left..but should he win the championship with NO wins....I will be the first to utter a big "HUH?"! I know championships have been won with no wins in the past...I'm just hoping it doesn't continue to happen. NASCAR must be the only sport in existence where a "team" can win a championship without a win...and that's just wrong!!

  3. You are the only one who has written that Jr.'s "let's start over" was because he "struggled to explain how he had lost yet another one" or was "fighting with his emotions and silent."

    I think you are reaching. Nate Ryan of USA Today, who personally observed the whole thing, made it pretty obvious the awkward interview was due to the unruly fan and the fact Jr. probably didn't know the interview was live.

    You are dramatizing.

    1. I saw Nate's story before I posted my column and as a result went back and watched the interview again many times. Still think there was more in play than simply an unruly fan.

  4. It's JIMMIE Johnson, not Jimmy. Kind of makes me wonder what, if anything, you really know about Nascar.

    1. Yup, Jimmie, Jimmie, Jimmie. I've made the mistake before. I'll do my best not to make it again. Thanks.