Troubles mount for Earnhardt

Troubles mount for Earnhardt

What a difference a week makes, it's said. Not for the No. 8 Chevy team of Dale Earnhardt, Jr., though. The DEI bunch was expected to make a statement by taking Atlanta by storm as the defending winners of the spring AMS event. Dale ...

What a difference a week makes, it's said. Not for the No. 8 Chevy team of Dale Earnhardt, Jr., though. The DEI bunch was expected to make a statement by taking Atlanta by storm as the defending winners of the spring AMS event.

Dale Earnhardt Jr..
Photo by Eric Gilbert.
They made a statement all right: that Earnhardt and Team 8 have big, big problems.

"I've made most of the mistakes," said Earnhardt. "I think we are getting better even if it doesn't look like that to people looking at the surface."

Earnhardt's year started off pretty decently. While he didn't repeat victory at Daytona he did grab a third place result and earn an early spot in the top ten. Since then, Earnhardt hasn't done anything worth mentioning.

If not for being the brightest light bulb in NASCAR's marquee he most likely wouldn't be getting much airtime at all. The team was awful at Fontana and finished a disappointing 32nd.

Vegas brought no lady luck to Team Earnhardt either, as an early race accident ended his day in 42nd place. The two bad races cost the team considerable momentum.

After three races they stood 27th in points.

Fast forward to Atlanta: insiders predicted that Earnhardt would pull off a save like last season. In 2004, after an early incident at Vegas, Earnhardt came back a week later to score the victory at the 1.5-mile track.

Alas, this week it was not meant to be. In fact, a top twenty run was not to be. The No. 8 driver made mistakes that cost him all day long, but the car looked unspectacular at the start, qualifying poorly, practicing rather slow and getting lapped fairly early in the event.

Teammate Michael Waltrip took Earnhardt's race winning car from last year across the line at Atlanta in seventh place.

Initially the team swap was meant to be a catalyst to improve performance. Are they not asking themselves, "How's that working out for ya?"

Earnhardt is only going to be so loquacious about how it's his mistakes mucking up the 8 ride before this team really starts to crumble. They may have had some problems in the 2004 chase for the championship, but they won six races including the sports biggest event -the Daytona 500.

Let me repeat: they won the Daytona 500.

Sure, they didn't bring home the Nextel Cup but they made the chase and finished fifth. This was not a team that needed to be rebuilt. This was a winning race team. The way Team 8 is performing right now they are on a dangerous precipice of sliding so far down they won't be able to get back up. In NASCAR, momentum is everything.

Race fans, storm clouds are gathering.

Earnhardt went a lap down at lap 40 to leader Jimmie Johnson and two laps down at lap 62 after being penalized for speeding on pit road and accessed a pass through penalty. He managed to make one lap up, but Johnson blew past the 8 car again at lap 82 slapping him back to a two lap deficit. They would slip to three laps down as the race came to close, but manage to make a leg back up to finish two laps down in the 24th spot.

"We had a car that could have finished a lot better than we did," Earnhardt said. "That's my fault. I was going too fast exiting pit road, and we fell two laps down and could never recover. I can't knock anybody but myself."

Earnhardt might be taking it all on the chin for now, and maybe it is driver error and all of this will go away once the team has had time to gel. But, Earnhardt cannot afford to dig himself into this kind of deficit so early in the season if he is serious about competing for his first championship this year.

Earnhardt now sits 26th in overall standings.

"Junior's got to start over," said point leader Jimmie Johnson of Earnhardt's poor performances. "He's had so many years with the Eury's and that group of guys, it's going to take some time to get going."

Yeah, maybe, but this is NASCAR Nextel Cup Racing, can Earnhardt risk taking the time to "get going" with a slew of younger, brighter talents, smashing the throttle waiting for their chance to dance tire tracks up and down his back?

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Michael Waltrip , Jimmie Johnson , Eric Gilbert