By admin | March 17, 2008
Junior leading the Hendrick pack
By Richard Allen
When it was announced that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. would leave the team his late father started to join rival Hendrick Motorsports some wondered just where he would fit in on a team of super stars. If the results of the first five races are any indication, he is fitting in at the head of the HMS pack.
Junior has been the highest finishing Hendrick car in four of the five races run so far this season. The one race where he was not the highest finisher was the California event in which he was involved in a crash not of his own making with, ironically, his teammate, Casey Mears.
Also, he is in 5th place in the overall standings and the only Hendrick car to be in the all important Top 12. However, teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon are just outside the Chase for the Championship standings in 13th and 14th respectively with many races to go before the final 12 are determined. Mears finds himself in the precarious position of 33rd, only 16 points away from falling out of the Top 35 and thus losing a guaranteed starting spot for each race.
Earnhardt got off to a strong start with two non points paying wins in Daytona. Although there has yet to be an official victory while driving for Rick Hendrick the statistics compiled by the #88 team are consistent and impressive. He has placed in the Top 10 in four races including three consecutive strong runs which ended with Top 5 finishes, including his 5th place in Bristol on Sunday.
Consistency was something that was always lacking when Junior drove for DEI. Mechanical problems and poor handling cars seemed to lead to a roller coaster ride of highs and lows for the driver and his multitude of fans.
Many believed this to be a make or break year of sorts for the second generation driver. Even he has admitted that there can be no excuses while driving for the sport’s premier team.
As is the case whenever there is a major change of any sort there were those who predicted unrealistic success and failure. However, what should be encouraging to the ‘Junior Nation’ is that the reality has landed somewhere in between those hit and miss forecasts. The reality is that this driver and team have shown they can run up front and compete for wins week after week. When that is the case, wins are almost certain to follow.
Some have criticized crew chief Tony Eury, Jr. for late race calls that were believed to have cost Earnhardt wins in Daytona and Bristol but Junior declared on Sunday that Eury’s work during the week and throughout the race is what has put the team in the position to make those calls.
Most encouraging to ‘Junior Nation’ should be that not only is their driver running well but the Sprint Cup schedule is about to play in the Earnhardt’s favor. Junior has won on four of the next five tracks to be visited by the series.
While a win may not have come yet chances are good that a win or wins could be just around the next corner.
Late in Sunday’s race in Bristol Earnhardt passed by his championship winning teammates on his way to yet another top finish among the team. Could it be that those passes were emblematic of the new leader emerging on that powerhouse team? Well, probably not the leader but certainly a leader among an organization of leaders.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association. His weekly column appears in The Mountain Press every Wednesday.
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