August 21, 2010
By Allen Madding
Dale Earnhardt Jr. set third fastest lap at the end of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series first practice of the morning on Friday -- preparing for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on Saturday night.
After an 80 race winless streak, Bristol appears to be the best opportunity for Junior and the Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 team to contend for a win and a shot at redemption.
Prior to the race at Pocono, Junior was quoted as saying he was planning on grabbing victory by the throat. Unfortunately, not only was he unable to fulfill on that prediction, but he was unable to even grab her coat-tail, as he finished 27th.
Prior to last week’s CarFax 400 at Michigan, Junior remained upbeat saying that it was still possible for the team to secure a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. But another poor performance that weekend almost solidified his absence in the championship title contention for the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
But the Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 National Guard/AMP Energy Chevrolet unloaded fast Friday morning and occupied the second fastest practice times for much of the two hour practice session before he was bumped down to third fastest.
While no awards or bonus checks are awarded for having the fastest time (or third fastest) in practice, it does a great deal for the morale of the driver and the team struggling through a difficult season. And the success of practice could be detected in the voice of the driver of the National Guard/AMP Energy Chevrolet and crew as they continued to work on the handling of the car.
For the second practice session, the team changed to qualifying trim for Saturday’s Irwin Tools Night Race and Junior fell to 21th fastest with lap times slower than what they posted in race trim. Junior’s frustration was easy to note, “It feels like crap”, he quipped.
In qualifying, Junior put himself in the 27th starting position -- which was in line with his qualifying trim practice times. As we have seen in the past the fastest in qualifying does not always win the race. There will be plenty of opportunities to make up positions during the 500 laps. If the No. 88 Chevrolet is as fast in race trim Saturday night as it was in race trim in practice, it could mean some promise exists for Earnhardt and company.
Junior has not had a win at Bristol since taking the checkered flag in the 2004 Sharpie 500 in the Dale Earnhardt Incorporated No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet. In 21 career starts at Thunder Valley, Junior has recorded one win, seven top five finishes and 12 top tens.
While a win in Saturday night’s Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol may do little to help his chances at securing the final spot in the 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup, it would certainly bolster Junior’s self-confidence as well as the confidence of the team as they begin to look towards the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season.
A win for Junior in the Cup Series could be just what the sport itself needs to bring the fans back to the race tracks.
Voted the sport’s most popular driver, when Junior wins the fans flock to the tracks and to their television sets. If Junior and the Hendrick No. 88 National Guard/AMP Energy Chevrolet team could turn their fortunes around, it could be felt in track attendance throughout the entire schedule.
The thoughts and ideas expressed by this writer or any other writer on Insider Racing News, are not necessarily the views of the staff and/or management of IRN.