News & Media

Caraviello: Runner-up finish enough to stoke Earnhardt fever

April 08, 2011, David Caraviello,

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Friday at Texas Motor Speedway, it felt like the old days again. The group of media members began gathering behind the No. 88 hauler more than 20 minutes before Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s scheduled media availability, all the better to grab a front-row position next to the mirrored sliding doors. By the time the session finally began, the crush of humanity was so great that some reporters struggled to keep their balance, and everyone risked getting bopped in the head by telescoping microphone booms being maneuvered overhead.

If there were any doubts that NASCAR's most popular driver has returned to relevance, they were squashed by the kind of every-man-for-himself press gaggle that was a weekly occurrence back when Earnhardt was winning races in the No. 8 car. There were a few differences, of course -- he's driving for a different team than he was back then, he's competing in different colors (as evidenced by the strategically placed fridge of Amp), and Friday's scrum was sparked not by a race victory, but a second-place finish last weekend at Martinsville.

Dale Jr.: The good

95.72: Percentage of laps Dale Earnhardt Jr. has run on the lead lap in the first six Cup races of 2011. That is No. 1 in the series. His percentage in the same Loop Data statistic through six races last year was 85.97, which ranked 13th. -- Sporting News Wire Service

Dale Jr.: The bad

8: Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s place of finish last April, his only top-10 result in the past eight races at Texas. In four of the past five, he has finished 20th or worse. -- Racing Recall

In a Chase era where the spotlight focuses almost solely on the dozen drivers in the championship hunt, Earnhardt's struggles of the past two years have left him somewhat marginalized. He still collects most popular driver trophies by the armful, still spurs the legions in their No. 88 gear to come out to the race track or tune in the television every weekend, still remains a ubiquitous presence because of his commercial viability. But from a competitive standpoint, he's been overshadowed by the likes of Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin, and in the process we've all forgotten the seismic impact Earnhardt can have on NASCAR when he is consistently contending at the front.

It's been a long time -- early 2008, to be exact -- since we've seen that Dale Earnhardt Jr., the one not only capable of moving the needle, but making it jump like those on a soundboard during an Iron Maiden concert. He still hasn't won in nearly three years, a drought that will stretch to an even 100 race weekends if he doesn't reach Victory Lane on Saturday night at Texas. And yet there is such a yearning within the fan base to see Earnhardt succeed, and such an obligation within the media to feed the beast, that these days a runner-up finish is enough to spark a weeklong Juniorpalooza that can make even the man himself feel sheepish.

"I know that the fans don't really like having a lot of Dale Jr. stories out there," said Earnhardt, well aware of how polarizing the attention he receives can be. "But after this past week, there has probably been far too much commenting and discussion in the media about the finish. I feel like we've got more to do, and we need to do better. I can't really control what happens other than that, other than what I'm doing in the race car. The media attention and focus that we've had this week has been great for our sponsors and great for Hendrick Motorsports and great for our relationships, and it's great for me, too. I'm a little bit unassuming, I guess. It was a lot of exposure just to run second somewhere. Hopefully we can validate all that with a win soon."

Give the man some credit -- no one is more aware of his place in the sport, and no one is more guarded over the progress the No. 88 team has made since crew chief Steve Letarte came aboard and Earnhardt was paired with five-time champion Johnson in Hendrick's new 48/88 shop. Some people are ready to do cartwheels over the fact that Earnhardt is competitive again, over the fact that he's eighth in points, over the fact that he led in the final laps at Martinsville. Earnhardt, though, is a realist. He knows there's some work still to do before he snaps a winless streak that dates to Michigan in the summer of 2008. He knows he probably over-drove the corner at Martinsville where eventual winner Kevin Harvick squeezed by. He knows he's shown early flashes before and then faded into the background.

He knows he has shortcomings even at places like Texas and Talladega, tracks that have been good to him in the past. "We haven't run that great here at Texas the last couple of years. We've run inside the top 10 in some of those races, and we did take the lead a little bit in those races," said Earnhardt, who earned his first victory at NASCAR's top level here in 2000, and led 46 laps in a ninth-place result here a year ago. Then there's next week at big, bad Talladega Superspeedway, where he's won five times but cracked the top 10 just twice in his past seven starts.

"Hopefully, we will do what we need to do in that race to try to be toward the front near the end," he said. "I haven't really finished well there in the last several trips. I'll probably try to take care of my car a little better during the race. It is a very long race. [I'll] try to make better decisions, better judgment calls to have my car there at the end when I need to be able to be around to get a good finish. I haven't been able to do that in the last several trips there."

That pragmatic approach tempers the rampant enthusiasm felt by many in Junior Nation who eagerly await that breakthrough victory. Sometimes, those citizens can get a little too enthusiastic -- as evidenced by the clamoring this past week that Earnhardt should have just taken out Harvick at Martinsville to win the race. You could almost hear the cry: Just rattle his cage, like daddy did to Terry Labonte at Bristol! As if Earnhardt would choose to snap a seemingly endless winless streak under such controversial circumstances.

"It was a lot of exposure just to run second somewhere. Hopefully we can validate all that with a win soon."


"I don't think that would have been the right thing to do," Earnhardt said. "I wouldn't want anyone to do that to me, to take me completely out of the race under any circumstances. I don't have a history of doing that. It's real easy to say that on the Internet. Really, on the Internet, it's easy to say a lot of things. Everyone knows how I race. I try to race respectful and want the same in return. If it's near the end of the race, I expect to run hard and be aggressive, and I expect the guys to race me hard and be aggressive. And I kind of think that's what went down this past weekend."

Earnhardt said he did get to Harvick once, and tried to get into him a little bit, but the back bumper on the No. 29 was so worn down the contact felt like a pillow fight. But he wasn't going to wreck his opponent to win. "I didn't want to take him out under any circumstances," Earnhardt said. "I don't take out drivers or wreck people on purpose. I wanted to race him hard."

Finishing second, though, doesn't detract from the obvious progress Earnhardt has made to this point. In the offseason team owner Rick Hendrick not only paired Earnhardt with Letarte, but also moved the driver of the No. 88 car into the same building as the No. 48, where Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have engineered five consecutive title runs. The hope was that some of that championship mojo, that swagger Johnson's team carries with it, would rub off. From Johnson's perspective, it's not too early to think the combination is paying dividends for his new stable mate.

"I think if we had major issues, they would have shown up already," Johnson said. "I feel the way both teams are running -- granted, we don't have the consistent weekend that we want really for all four cars -- but we're all getting good finishes, we're all running well, we're all producing. I think in tough times like we've been going through, to have the results shows that we all work very well together. The change, with Jeff going to the Alan Gustafson crew and Junior coming to the Steve Letarte crew, that's all worked very well .... I think you can read into it. I think things have been going very well."

That much seemed evident by the crowd that swelled around Earnhardt's hauler on Friday, indicative of a sport that longs to see its most popular figure return to the top of the standings to stay. All it took was one runner-up finish to stoke the fever, to provide a glimpse of the craziness that used to surround Earnhardt when he was winning races and appearing on magazine covers and popping up on awards shows. Times have changed and Earnhardt is older now, but still -- the unmatched potential in a combination of popularity and performance remains. That monster has been lying there, slumbering, for years now. Everything changes when it finally awakes.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.