Junior Nation looking for a Change of luck.
Earnhardt teammates think his
fortune is turning around
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
NASCAR’s “Junior Nation” — that large chunk of the sport’s fan base that is so loyal to Dale Earnhardt Jr. and has been fairly quiet for a season or so — may be about to rise again.
Based on comments from Earnhardt himself and from his Hendrick Motorsports teammates, there are reasons to believe that Earnhardt’s surprising slump is nearing an end.
It couldn’t come too soon for Earnhardt and his supporters. His 2009 season was a nightmare.
His longtime dream of racing at the top levels of the sport with his cousin Tony Eury Jr. as his crew chief came to an end because of their lousy results. Even with the midseason switch to Lance McGrew, he still finished the year 25th in points with just two top-5 and five top-10 finishes while his Hendrick teammates Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon swept the top three spots in the standings and combined to win 13 races.
The general thinking among Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s fellow drivers, especially those at Hendrick, is that Earnhardt is overdue for a change of luck.
Martin, whose No. 5 Chevrolet is prepared under the same Hendrick Motorsports roof as Earnhardt’s No. 88, said Earnhardt’s luck is bound to change soon. He said Earnhardt ran better than many realized last year, even though the final results indicated otherwise.
“They ran better than the [No. 5] car in numerous races, but nobody really noticed because they got wrecked or something broke or whatever happened, happened,” Martin said. “They had a lot of things happen and go bad for them when they were faster than we were in the [No. 5] car. … It won’t take an enormous amount of performance to get them in the hunt.”
But it will take a change of fortunes.
“Everybody’s luck turns around,” Martin said. “Nobody has got the horseshoe forever either. It goes both ways. And certainly Dale Jr. is due for some good days.”
Earnhardt said he senses some real change at his race shop, and a lot of it has to do with stability, especially when it comes to his crew chief Lance McGrew.
“It really wasn’t that long ago when we didn’t know what was going to happen with Lance,” said Earnhardt, referring to the “interim” label that McGrew carried until last fall at Talladega.
But that’s not the case anymore. Earnhardt said that based on his own observations and what he hears from McGrew, he has reason to believe that the newfound stability at the shop will translate into better results at the race track.
“Lance is telling me, being the guy that’s there every day, that it’s completely different, and he seems far more enthusiastic about the beginning of the season and what our chances are than I anticipated him feeling, if I had to guess at the end of last year,” he said. “I knew we would make some changes, and I knew we would try again at Daytona this year, but I feel even better now after just hearing him and understanding how much has changed, how much has really changed.
“It helps my confidence that we’ll be where we need to be.”
Jeff Gordon said that just getting Earnhardt’s mojo back will fix a lot of things for his teammate.
“The [Hendrick] organization puts so much effort into every team and every car that the ingredients are certainly there,” he said. “I think that probably what’s left is just to get that confidence up. It happens with everybody. If the driver is confident, then the crew chief is confident, and if the crew chief is confident, the pit crew is confident. It just trickles all the way down.”