August 15, 2009
By Brenda Benedict
When Dale Earnhardt Jr. looks back to his last Sprint Cup, he only has to look as far as Michigan International Speedway in June 2008. He is returning there this weekend for his 350th Cup start and he is looking to turn around his downhill slide that he has had this past month.
Michigan International Speedway has been good for Earnhardt. He has had one win, two pole positions, three top-five finishes and six top-10s there.
Earnhardt’s results this summer up to this point have been discouraging. In Monday’s rain-delayed rain at Watkins Glen, he lost his brakes and crashed.
"I mashed the brake pedal going into ten and it just went to the floor,” Earnhardt said. “It braked for just a second and then it was like it blew the line or something. I tried to miss the No. 43 and he turned in the corner and I'm real sorry about that for those guys but there wasn’t nothing I could do. I didn't have any brakes. I was pumping them going through the dirt, just skipping through there, and hit that tire barrier. Luckily it's a safe race track and why we'll be able to run next week."
Earnhardt attitude impressed me after posting a 39th place finish. Both his body language and his words reflected a good attitude and hope for the future. It wasn’t what we heard from all drivers but that’s a story for another day.
Earnhardt said, “It has been a tough year, man. I guess if I sat there and thought about all the bad things and got further down, it would just be a longer climb to get back.”
This positive attitude shows he is looking at the big picture. The big picture is what is takes for a driver to remain successful in this sport. In a sport where you are at the mercy of a number of events over which you have no control and looking at the big picture allows you to maintain your sanity and sense of who you are and what you can really accomplish.
Earnhardt Jr. was looking to reverse his ill-fortune when he changed his crew chief from Tony Eury, Jr. to Lance McGrew. It hasn’t happened yet. Earnhardt’s average race finish has fallen since making the change.
After ten races with McGrew, Earnhardt’s average finish has dropped from the 21.3 that it was with Eury, Jr. to 24.9.
Earnhardt Jr. spoke earlier this week about the upcoming race.
“I enjoy racing at Michigan, and we seem to run pretty well there. It’s a big track, and there are multiple grooves to run. If one line doesn’t work, then you can move around the track. We had a good car last time out so hopefully we improve on that.”
Lance McGrew is also looking at the big picture. He says that he is learning about what Earnhardt likes and what he doesn’t like. “I think setup-wise, we weren’t altogether where we needed to be (at Michigan in June). I think we’ve learned a lot more things about what Dale likes and what Dale doesn’t like. And I think that our cars are better. I think where we’ve had opportunities to build a couple new cars and get a car or two in rotation, that’s going to alleviate some of the problems that we were fighting there the first time that we couldn’t seem to overcome as much. So, I definitely think Dale’s tuned in, and I’m looking forward to starting to go back to some of these tracks that I feel like we had three-quarters of the race put together, and we just didn’t follow through on the last 25 percent. So I feel like we’ve learned a lot since then, and it’s up to us to put something under him that he’s happy with for the whole race, not just three-quarters of it.”
So McGrew is 75% there. We know that 75% doesn’t win the race. But looking at the big picture, Earnhardt Jr. and McGrew seem to know what they have to do to make that final 25%. A good finish at Michigan could bring that percentage up. But a win at Michigan may be what Earnhardt Jr. needs to restore his faith in himself and his team. A win at Michigan would also restore my faith in NASCAR’s most popular driver and give us all reason to celebrate.
You can follow me at Twitter @nascarfaithful
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.