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.”
Reed Sorenson gets Back to basics
Hopes ‘little step back’ to partial schedule leads to ‘big step forward’
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
For most of his 23 years, Reed Sorenson’s story was a textbook lesson on how to groom an aspiring young race driver and propel him to a ride on the elite Sprint Cup Series. But the latest chapter in his career, one in which he’s having to step back to the Nationwide Series, may be the most interesting yet.
The story started when Sorenson was just six years old and began racing Quarter Midgets. His father, Brad, a top Late Model driver in the Southeast at the time, parked his own driving ambitions to steer his son’s career. Reed’s mom, Becky, cranked up a public relations machine that spread news of the youngster’s progress far and wide, especially to the movers and shakers around the NASCAR hub in Charlotte.
Young Reed excelled in Quarter Midgets then moved to Legends cars as soon as he reached the minimum age. He continued right on winning races and championships. He took the step to Late Models as soon as he was allowed to race them and then was on to the ASA circuit, then the highest profile stock car circuit short of ARCA and NASCAR.
By the time he was old enough to race in NASCAR, teams were lining up to court him. He chose Chip Ganassi and rewarded him with two wins in the Nationwide Series in 2005, his first full season out.
By 2006, at age 20, he was a Sprint Cup regular. But the upward career movement stalled out there. In 145 career Cup starts, Sorenson’s best result has been five top-five finishes. His best points finish has been 22nd in 2007. Sensing his career at Ganassi had reached a plateau after the 2008 season, Sorenson moved to the Gillett Evernham team that soon morphed into Richard Petty Motorsports. That turned out to be not the best choice. By the middle of the 2009 season, he was a lame duck there. He finished the season 29th in the standings, with just one top-10 finish.
Now, just a few weeks shy of his 24th birthday, he’s preparing to run a partial, 23-race schedule for Braun Racing in the Nationwide Series, sharing the ride with Cup driver Brian Vickers.
In a phone interview last week, he sounded upbeat and confident about taking a job that some might look on as a demotion.
“I look at it as taking a little step back so I can make a big step forward,” he said, explaining that he believes the Braun team and promising young crew chief Trent Owens are plenty capable of providing him cars that can carry him to Victory Lane and build back his stock’s value.
“It’ll be nice to get back that feeling of being one of the cars to beat every time out,” Sorenson said. “I haven’t had that in a few years.”
Sorenson said that after working with Owens at Gateway International Raceway and at Phoenix last year, where he finished second and third respectively, he believes he and Owens can be a winning duo.
“He’s dedicated,” Sorenson said. “He gives all he’s got to make the car the best it can be.”
Sorenson said that he’s found his new team to be hungry to show the Cup-affiliated competitors in the Nationwide garage that they’re as good as any other outfit.
“Most of the guys at Braun have been together a few years, and they feel like they have something to prove. They’re the best stand-alone team.”
But Sorenson’s enthusiasm about his upcoming Nationwide schedule isn’t a sign that he’s surrendered any hope of returning to the Cup circuit full-time. He said the timing may have worked out just right as far as he’s concerned. He believes that the current economic woes are making it tough for any driver to get a good Cup deal right now. But he doesn’t believe that will still be the case a year from now.
“If we run good this year, I’ll be in a better position next year, especially if we can win some races,” he said.
And he’s pretty sure that he’ll get a few chances in Cup this year.
“We’re working hard on it,” he said.
David Ragan: Looking forward with new crew chief!
David Ragan: Looking forward
With new crew chief, No. 6 driver excited about 2010 season
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
As the 2010 NASCAR season approaches, one of the stories to watch will be the performance of David Ragan and his No. 6 Ford team at Roush Fenway Racing. After nearly making the Chase in 2008 and showing tons of promise, Ragan started the 2009 season with a solid sixth-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500, then dropped like a rock, finally finishing 27th in the points standings with just two top-10 finishes (the other a seventh at California in the fall) and four laps led.
And when one’s driving one of the premier cars for one of the sport’s premier owners, that’s not good for the long-term employment prospects.
But Ragan says he’s used to that kind of pressure and ready to go to work to right his team’s listing ship. His dedication to racing was evident in his New Year’s Day schedule. At an hour when most were sleeping off a night of revelry, Ragan was at his personal shop, working on a Late Model car that he plans to race in his home state of Georgia at Lanier National Speedway on Saturday and Sunday.
Still, his primary focus is on his Cup efforts, so he took the time to grant an interview about his NASCAR efforts while his friends and cousins continued work on the car.
With impact wrenches hammering away in the background, Ragan talked about the upcoming season.
He said he’s optimistic, based on some recent conversations, that his new crew chief, Donnie Wingo, can help him achieve the success he couldn’t find in ’09 with his former pit boss Jimmy Fennig.
“It’ll be good for our team to have Donnie and me working together,” Ragan said. “We’ve talked some, and we’re thinking along the same direction on a lot of things …
“It’ll be a lot of fun to go to Daytona with a new group and a good attitude.”
?Ragan said his preseason goals are pretty much the same as the ones he had this time last year – make the Chase and win some races. He said that at this point, he doesn’t consider himself, or his team, championship material.
“I don’t know that any team is except the 48 [Jimmie Johnson’s team],” he said. “We just need to be consistent, and not have a lot of failures.”
He pointed out that last season started good enough, but he soon was struck with a series of misfortunes. He was 17th in the second race of the season, at California, and was eighth in points heading to the third race, at Las Vegas. He blew an engine there then lost another one in the seventh race of the season, at Texas. He left there 29th in points.
“We never were able to dig ourselves out of the hole,” he said, adding that he hopes history doesn’t repeat itself.
“We just can’t afford any DNFs [Did Not Finish] in the first five or six races. If we’re in the top 15 in points through Atlanta, Bristol will be good.”
When Ragan laid out the road map for success in 2010, it seemed pretty straightforward and simple, but it’ll have to be followed with the burden of pressure that comes with the territory.
But Ragan said he’s ready for that too.
“I’ve always raced like I had the heat on me,” he said. “It’s been like that since I was 12 and driving for my father. When I got out of high school and was trying to get a ride, I had heat on me.”
He said that’s a better approach than to be overly sure of himself, like some drivers who have more confidence than their on-track results justify. And he has others to think about too.
“I need to perform for my fans, for [sponsor] UPS, for my father, for everyone,” he said. “And I feel confident that I can do it.”
A lot of that confidence comes from two major victories in the Nationwide Series last year – at Talladega and Bristol. They were his first two in a major NASCAR series, and they also were the first for his then-crew chief Mike Kelley and for most of the people on his team. But with the departure of sponsor Discount Tire, Ragan currently has no Nationwide races on his schedule. That’s something he’d like to change.
“I want to run some Nationwide races, but I want to run them for Roush,” he said. “Hopefully something will happen so I can run a limited schedule, but my primary focus is on getting the Cup program going.”
And his work with his Late Model car is a first step of the year in that direction. With limited opportunities for testing in his Cup car due to NASCAR’s restrictions on testing, he’ll use his time behind the wheel to sharpen his skills for the upcoming season.
“Any time you can get in a race car helps you,” he said. “You get to use muscles you haven’t used in a couple of months, and you get to do some restarts and run two-wide.”
And maybe get that boost that comes from being first to the checkered flag.