On Friday at the Martinsville Speedway, Dale Earnhardt Jr. wasn’t a driver who sounded like he was enjoying his job.
In a season that can’t wait to be put behind both himself and his fans (no wins, no Chase bid, and only two top fives and seven top 10s before Martinsville), Earnhardt Jr. said that there was nothing in his team’s performance that makes him optimistic about the rest of 2010 or heading into the 2011 season.
“Even if we run good I would need a little more convincing,” Earnhardt Jr. “We need more than one good run. … If it hadn’t happened all year, I don’t believe anybody believes it will happen the rest of the year.
“We’re going to show up and work hard and try not to give up,” he said.
After 500 laps on Sunday the paperclip it would be strange if Earnhardt Jr. wasn’t just a little convinced and looking forward to the next race. Not only because it’ll come at a track that he’s won at five times, but also because his No. 88 team finally has a little bit of momentum.
And momentum in this sport can go a long way.
Denny Hamlin, who closed the championship lead to within six points of four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson, won the TUMS Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville. The Chase is first and foremost on everyone’s mind and as such Hamlin and Johnson will continue to earn much attention heading into the final four races of the season.
Elsewhere “Junior Nation” has awoken from their two-year slumber and are ready for their moment in the sun. It took until the second half of the race but their voices were heard loud and clear and for all the right reasons.
Qualifying 28th didn’t set a great tone early in the weekend and neither did a spin in final practice on Saturday. but Martinsville is one of Earnhardt Jr.’s better tracks and thankfully it’s not where you start, it’s where you finish. In his first career start in Martinsville Earnhardt Jr. hit everything but the pace car, getting his NASCAR short track career off to a rocky start.
The driver has come a long way since then and this has been a place where he’s proven to be a contender. As such it’s sent a strong message that it’s not just restrictor plate tracks he can excel on.
His Martinsville statistics, which were all improved upon Sunday: 21 starts, 10 top 10’s and eight top fives finishes with 758 laps led. That includes a memorable race in 2006 where he drove his then No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet to a fourth place finish after tearing off the right front fender.
Sunday, Earnhardt Jr. was ran between 10th and 20th the first 150 laps as he battled the likes of Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth. Pit strategy then took him to the top 10 and finally to the lead when he drove around teammate Jeff Gordon on lap 285 who later said that Earnhardt Jr. was doing an awesome job.
“He’s making a race out of it now,” Gordon radioed as Earnhardt Jr. closed in. “He’s going to make a lot of people happy.”
When the caution came out and the leaders came down pit road, the AMP Energy/National Guard team went to work and busted off an 11.7 second pit stop to keep their driver in the lead. Earnhardt Jr. went on to lead 90 circuits, even holding off dominant Jeff Burton through lap 300.
It was Burton’s teammate Kevin Harvick that got the best of Earnhardt Jr. on lap 378 as Earnhardt Jr. then faded throughout the rest of the race.
The radio communication between driver and crew chief Lance McGrew got heated, nothing new, as Earnhardt Jr. tried to understand why the car was reacting differently than it had during the first half of the event.
At the end of the day it was a seventh place finish. Much needed and hard earned and now onto the next one.
Talladega has been circled on many driver calendars; it’s expected to shake up the Chase. But, non-Chase drivers have faired well at the superspeedway and next weekend on Halloween anything can happen. Jamie McMurray and Dale Jarrett each pulled off a victory at the 2.66 mile beast and Earnhardt Jr. wants to get back to victory lane in Alabama for the first time since 2004.
Should it happen it would be his sixth win at the track and Junior Nation is looking at it as potentially their last chance in 2010 for a victory. The No. 88 will be watched very closely by both fans and competitors on Sunday and not just as an expected factor but for a new paint scheme he’ll be sporting.
Earlier this year AMP Energy and director Terry Gilliam paired to produce a short film titled “The Legend of Hallowdega,” which will air Chapter 1 of the story prior to Sunday’s race. David Arquette and Justin Kirk will star as Earnhardt Jr. and Darrell Waltrip make a special appearance.
In connection to the movie Earnhardt Jr. will run a black and yellow “Legend of Hallowdega” car for the AMP Energy Juice 500. A new look, a little momentum from Martinsville, a very special and successful track and a whole lot of fan support can lead to a big weekend at the big track for Earnhardt Jr.
And maybe it’ll help him be more optimistic than he’s been this season.