News & Media

Track Smack: Penske searching for groove as Dale Jr. seeks win

June 20, 2011, ,

1. Pocono brought another strong finish for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Now he heads to Michigan, where he last won three years ago. Is this the week the drought finally ends?

David Caraviello: Well, certainly the stars seem to have aligned themselves, given that you have a confluence of a driver who's recorded several strong finishes in a row heading to what historically seems one of his better tracks. But then again, nothing is guaranteed. The thing is, Dale Jr. could really win almost any week now. It could come at Michigan, at Daytona, at Indy. He's been running so consistently well that I don't think place necessarily matters anymore.

Jarrod Breeze: No! I know I'm supposed to expand on that reasoning in this space but the one word answers sums it up best: No! Call it a hunch, but until I see it happen I just don't think it will. Then again, the Boston Red Sox finally won the World Series. But maybe Dale Jr. is a Cubs fan. The thing for Dale Jr. this week is to be more lucky than good (but then, that is the case most week for a lot of drivers).

Mark Aumann: Hey, it's the weekly "is this the week Junior finally wins?" question. Yeah, he won at Michigan on a fuel mileage finish -- and he's been good at the fuel mileage game so far this season. But I think there's really no reason to believe Michigan factors into it any more than any other track. I'm going to channel Al Davis here: "Just win, baby." So we can finally get past the whole Junior's winless streak issue and move on to more pressing stuff, like Jeff Gordon's 40th birthday plans. And whether Tony Stewart needed a shoehorn to get into that tiny little Formula 1 cockpit during his trade-off with Lewis Hamilton at Watkins Glen.

David Caraviello: Listen, the win is coming. It's there, somewhere. He's running too well for it not to be lurking at some point. But until it happens, the "will Junior win this week?" question will be there. It seems like it's consuming everyone but the driver himself, who just seems happy to be so competitive.

Mark Aumann: Exactly, David. Junior's not "lucking" into top-10 finishes at this point. He's a solid Chase contender. I really think it's a matter of when, not if. (And for the Cubs, when the last World Series championship featured Tinker to Evers to Chance, maybe they just need a newer poem.)

David Caraviello: Somebody asked him at Pocono about the reaction to finishing runner-up two consecutive weeks, and how frustrating it was. His answer (in so many words): It's great. Being near the front is where you're supposed to be. Everybody's so caught up in the win that they've missed the progress being made.

Jarrod Breeze: Michigan is a fuel-mileage track, and if he is set up right he could sneak in there (like Brad Keselowski did a couple of weeks ago at Kansas). Yeah, he may have said that at Pocono, but he knows everyone is talking about that winless string, and it has to be frustrating for him. Will it spill over into the race where he takes that unnecessary gamble?

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Career statistics at MIS
YearRace No.St.Fin.
201023 3819
200915 3014
200923 153
200815 31
200823 423
200715 235
200723 3912
200623 176
200615 63
200515 4117
200523 1618
200415 1121
200423 321
200323 1932
200315 37
200215 322
200223 110
200123 1212
200114 739
200022 131
200014 613
199922 1724

David Caraviello: I don't think so. Certainly there are a lot of factors outside his control, and certainly there are other things going on, but let's face it -- Dale Jr. is relevant in the championship picture right now. He's third in points, has a string of good finishes behind him, and already has as many top-fives and top-10s as he did all of last year. We're not discussing a Junior who's 21st in points just for the sake of discussing Junior. He matters again, and that makes everything more fun.

Jarrod Breeze: His progress this year has been nothing short of remarkable. Go ahead and put his name on the Comeback Driver of the Year trophy. But in the win department, he still comes up short.

David Caraviello: Is there a Comeback Driver of the Year trophy? Do they give that out in Las Vegas? Maybe in the showroom at the Imperial Palace?

Jarrod Breeze: Beats me, but maybe there should be. He's certainly deserving of some hardware other than Most Popular Driver.

David Caraviello: There's always a lot of Dale Jr. interest when we go to Michigan because that's where he last won, but that fuel-mileage victory in 2008 is his only career victory in the Irish Hills. In fact, he has only five career top-five finishes there. He has tracks where he is much better -- like Talladega or Richmond. But of course he had been recently mediocre at Charlotte and Pocono, and look what happened. I wouldn't be shocked if the guy won anywhere these days.

Mark Aumann: Well, the biggest change I've seen for Junior is just his confidence level. He's been so beat down by the lack of consistency over the past few seasons that you had to wonder if his mental game was shot. That's really been a huge difference in 2011. He's not beating himself mentally this season.

Jarrod Breeze: Dale Jr. has had at least one top-10 run at Michigan in the past five years, and that bodes well if the race does become a matter of fuel attrition. He should be in place and ready to pounce. That move to the 48 shop has done wonders, hasn't it? You first hear about that and you think, OK, big deal. But it has really panned out for the 88 team.

Mark Aumann: Yeah, I think the lucky horseshoe is rubbing off.

David Caraviello: Mark, I think you're completely right about confidence. That's why Steve Letarte was moved over there, to improve Junior's mental game, and it's absolutely worked. You can see the confidence just in his weekly media sessions, where he's smiling, loose, and wearing a shirt from his dive bar T-shirt of the month club selection. I'm being serious. Heck, the dude wore shorts into the media center at Kansas a few weeks ago. Nothing says comfortable more than that.

Jarrod Breeze: Dale Jr. is about the closest thing you will ever find to a gazillionaire everyman.

David Caraviello: You have to give Rick Hendrick credit for his offseason personnel moves. Jeff Gordon and Alan Gustafson have won twice and all but locked up a Chase wild card. Junior and Letarte have made huge strides in terms of competitiveness. Mark Martin and Lance McGrew are still working on it, but the potential seems there. Anyway, two out of three ain't bad. I heard that somewhere.

Jarrod Breeze: Here's the question: If the win doesn't come soon, will he start to dwell on that and lose the confidence he has gained?

David Caraviello: I don't know JB. I think he's so happy to be running so well. Now, Letarte, I'm sure these close calls are killing him. He endured a lot of them last year with Jeff Gordon, too. But given where that No. 88 has been the past two years, I don't think anyone is complaining.

Mark Aumann: See how all of these is a matter of perspective? Junior hasn't won this season but everything's positive. Denny Hamlin hasn't won and we're all worried that he's lost his edge. And heck, Kurt Busch is the one who's seemingly had a pair of wins in his grasp the past two weeks and hasn't closed the deal.

David Caraviello: Speaking of Kurt Busch ....

2. Kurt Busch has three consecutive top-10 finishes. Brad Keselowski won a race. After a rough spring, has Penske Racing finally figured things out?

Jarrod Breeze: No. Where have I heard that before? If manufacturer affiliation has any significance in NASCAR any more, then no. It will be hard for Dodge to sustain success.

David Caraviello: I knew that was coming. Anyway, it has been a roller coaster ride for those guys this year. Kurt's tirades on the radio, the changes as a result, the departure of the technical director, drivers discreetly sniping at one another through the media, then Brad's win and Kurt's current streak. I don't know if this is a wholesale turnaround, but given where this team was as recently as early May, things have absolutely taken a turn for the better.

Mark Aumann: I don't know. I'm not sure if I can equate the current success to the changes Penske made after Kurt's meltdown at Richmond, or if this is just a balancing out of fortune. Busch has eight top-10 finishes, so it's not like he suddenly went from bad to good. The team went into a slump and came out of it. Whether it's an indication of long-term success, I'm not certain.

Busch Statistics

(through Pocono)
RaceSt.Fin.Pts.Standing Pos.
Las Vegas229362

Keselowski Statistics

(through Pocono)
RaceSt. Fin.Pts.Standing Pos.
Las Vegas20261823

Jarrod Breeze: Brad's win was a fuel-mileage gambit. Outside of a third place at Darlington, he doesn't have much to show this season. Kurt is too streaky. He gets on a roll, everyone deems him a contender, then he disappears. I need to see a little more from both of them.

David Caraviello: Well, Kurt did have three consecutive weeks where he piled season-worst finishes on top of one another, and everything with that No. 22 camp seemed to be falling apart. The fact that they regrouped, given the blistering they took from their driver over the radio at Richmond, is amazing. And Brad has been much more competitive of late than his statistics may indicate.

Mark Aumann: And yeah, I was thinking Keselowski's win might set up the No. 2 team for a pretty good string of finishes. But it didn't seem to play out that way at Pocono. Now, Michigan may be a track more to his liking. We'll see.

Jarrod Breeze: Yes, but the ultimate proof is in the results. But you tell me, can a team that is pretty much on a manufacturing island unto itself be competitive for the long haul in today's NASCAR?

Mark Aumann: If Kurt winds up winning the championship, can we refer to that pivotal moment as the Siege of Richmond?

Jarrod Breeze: A few weeks ago I said I didn't have much faith in the Fords -- I have even less in Dodge.

Mark Aumann: Yeah, Jarrod. There's the rub. With only one team, Kurt and Brad are really at a handicap, compared to the ability of other manufacturers to share information and technology. That's one of the biggest challenges I think Dodge faces. There's just not enough data.

David Caraviello: We're not inside the walls at Penske, so we really don't know what's going on over there. But the timing of their technical director's departure for a stint at MIT -- coming right after the Richmond debacle -- was interesting. Kurt said the following week at Darlington that there were engineers at the track he hadn't seen before, so maybe all that had a cumulative effect. And don't forget, they fell a lap down at Charlotte because of a loose wheel, but made it up and got into the top five. That's the finish that turned everything around, and it was a scramble.

Jarrod Breeze: There's no doubt that both drivers are more than capable of stringing together a run of good finishes, if there's nothing holding them back. But I think other teams are better equipped.

Mark Aumann: Who would ever think you'd go more than 100 laps without a caution at the end of the Kansas race? Busch had the field covered there. And he definitely had a fast car at Pocono, even if it was the backup. And again, when we're talking about guys without a win this year, Kurt's one of those drivers who could break out in a big way this summer.

David Caraviello: But the past two weeks -- well, Kurt has just gone out there and run well. No tricks. He seems to be reining himself in over the radio a bit, not hitting the button and venting as much, which certainly has to help. I understand everything is performance related, but I don't understand how somebody on a crew can commit himself to working hard for a driver who's ripping him all the time.

Jarrod Breeze: Busch's backup cars seem to be better than the primaries. Maybe they should bring a backup for his backup, and scrap the primary altogether?

David Caraviello: JB, that certainly has seemed the case the past two weeks, hasn't it? Which to be honest, probably says something about the quality of cars Penske is turning out right now. Clearly, given that they've nearly won in backups the past two weeks, there's some depth to that fleet. But also, Kurt's pretty dang good. He gets overshadowed a lot by his little brother Kyle these days, but let's not forget he's the one in the family with a Cup championship -- at least right now.

Mark Aumann: "Sorry, Kurt. We scraped the primary getting it out of the hauler. You'll have to use the backup again this week."

David Caraviello: "Kurt, we accidentally nicked some paint on the undercarriage. That's going to increase drag. We're going to the backup!"

Mark Aumann: "Oh, geez! Who dropped the sledgehammer on the hood?"

Jarrod Breeze: The dude has made the Chase in six of the eight years, including the past three for Penske, so yeah, no debating his talent. He's in the hunt, for sure, but can he take the next step? When it comes to the Chase, he truly a one-man team. But if Brad can get another win, he may have help come playoff time.

Mark Aumann: Just like his kid brother, if Kurt can control his emotions, he definitely has the driving skills. The biggest issue is above the neckline.

David Caraviello: Well, JB, I would think 2004 would indicate that he has. Of course, that was with a Roush organization that was the best in the business at the time. So much of this sport is less about driving talent -- let's be honest, all the top guys have it -- than all the other factors around the driver being right. In that regard, you wonder if Kurt has been his own worst enemy sometimes. But there's no doubting the results that No. 22 team have turned in lately.

Mark Aumann: And if he had won the past two weeks, I'm not even sure we'd be doubting this team's chances.

Jarrod Breeze: Right. On the "everybody has the talent" remark, I refer back to the Dodge question. I think Chevy and Toyota and yes, even Ford, are the better options.

David Caraviello: We get to September, though, and a 10-week sprint, and I don't know how much that matters. Anyway, there will be no test drives of the 2012 Challenger in your immediate future, Mr. Breeze.

3. The NASCAR Hall of Fame selections for 2012 have been made. Who should top the 2013 class?

Mark Aumann: My biggest concern is that the voters are having a hard time placing the pioneers of the sport. There were a lot of great drivers before the modern era, and yet, other than Lee Petty and Ned Jarrett (better known perhaps for his broadcast work), we've not seen a move to push those guys through. I really would like to see Buck Baker, Tim Flock and Herb Thomas get some support.

David Caraviello: OK, the most obvious selections in terms of drivers have been made. We have series executives and a crew chief and even a Modified driver in there now, which surely raised a few eyebrows. Now, it's time to finally let in some of these older, multiple-championship Cup-level drivers before people completely forget who they are. I'm talking Red Byron, Tim Flock, Joe Weatherly, Herb Thomas, Buck Baker.

Class of 2012

Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Inman, Richie Evans and Glen Wood honored with enshrinement.

Video highlights

Relive the moments as Brian France reveals the third five voted to the Hall of Fame.

Jarrod Breeze: I'm right with you guys, although I would add Raymond Parks to that list. But will the voters put five "pioneers" in the same class?

Mark Aumann: Somebody made a great point this week about needing to have at least one member of the class be living. Otherwise, you're just looking at a bunch of posters at the ceremony. So, with that in mind, Leonard Wood? Maurice Petty? I really would like to see Cotton Owens get his due.

David Caraviello: It seems clear that the voting panel likes a degree of diversity in their selections, as was evident this year. So I wouldn't be surprised to see a mix. But Mark, you can't hold it against these guys just because they're not around anymore. I mean, goodness, how callous is that? Sorry, Flock family, we didn't vote Tim in because he wouldn't be able to speak at the ceremony. That's ridiculous.

Mark Aumann: Since I write the history column, I have a bit of a proclivity toward the older guys. But you have to give the hall a foundation. The Waltrips and Wallaces of this sport got there on the shoulders of the Flocks and the Weatherlys. And you have to be willing to do your history homework. I don't want the hall to skew current, just because the sport is more popular than it was then.

Jarrod Breeze: Byron won the first championship, but it was his only one. Flock, Baker, Thomas, Weatherly all have multiple titles, so you would have to think they have to get in some time soon, wouldn't you? Does that mean we'll see Richard Childress or Rick Hendrick get in before Parks?

David Caraviello: Red Byron actually won NASCAR's first two championships. And he did it all on one leg -- the other had been shot up by the Japanese in World War II. He lived in constant pain. He was also the first truly professional race car driver in NASCAR, someone who wasn't a moonshiner or a roughneck. Red Byron is more than deserving of a place in the hall, but there seems no urgency to get him in. Same with guys like Flock and Weatherly, who in their time were absolutely crazy good.

Jarrod Breeze: You almost have to think since Glen got in this year that Leonard would next year. After all, it was -- and is -- the Wood Brothers.

David Caraviello: JB, from what I understand there was some sentiment in the room to induct them together. But there was sentiment for Raymond Parks last year, and he fell off the map. I think it was Humpy Wheeler who said it best -- a lot of those older names simply don't resonate with the voters, and so they're overlooked. Which is a terrible shame.

Mark Aumann: At some point, we're going to get to the Rusty Wallaces and Bill Elliotts -- and we still have to figure out where Fireball Roberts and Curtis Turner fit in. And so far, the voters haven't even considered guys like Chris Economaki, who had just as much to do with the success of NASCAR as anybody on the track.

David Caraviello: Mark, you're so right. Given that only five guys get in, there's already a huge backlog of worthy candidates, and we haven't even begun to scrape the surface of competitors who raced in the modern era. It's going to get very, very complicated very quickly. If these older, forgotten drivers don't get in relatively soon, they never will. As for Economaki -- he has to get nominated first, and I have my own issues with media getting in, regardless of how influential they are or were. Ultimately, we're not the story. The competitors are. It's their hall.

Mark Aumann: I really think the hall is going to need to save one of its inductees for a veterans committee, in order to make sure the pioneers don't get ignored. Just looking at the way the vote has gone so far three times, I just don't think this group wants to deal with the majority of drivers from before the modern era. I think most of them only have second-hand knowledge of their accomplishments, whereas the guys who run during the television era are more likely to be positively compared. Is there anybody on the voting panel who actually saw Tim Flock race? I don't know.

Jarrod Breeze: Well, future voters aren't likely to have seen those guys race, either -- so it needs to be addressed.

Mark Aumann: Well, I really think guys with multiple championships need to be put higher on the priority list. And if you're going to consider Richie Evans a Hall of Famer -- and his record certainly speaks for itself -- I really think guys like Jack McCoy, Ray Elder and Hershel McGriff need similar consideration. The Winston West series was equal in equipment to Cup, and Elder won twice at Riverside against Cup regulars. McCoy won more than 50 races. That's where this whole thing becomes a slippery slope to me. I totally get the "this isn't just Cup" argument. But where is the demarcation line?

David Caraviello: Wow. And I thought Richie Evans opened a Pandora's Box. A Winston West driver in the Hall of Fame? Are you serious? But then again, I didn't think a Modified champ would get in over multiple-time Cup champions this soon ...

Jarrod Breeze: What about Sam Ard? Jack Ingram's on the nominee list, but Ard held a lot of what is now the Nationwide Series records before Kyle Busch came along. And if we're talking about having living members, guys like Ard and Fred Lorenzen are in poor health. The voters missed on Parks, will Ard and Lorenzen not get their due until after they have passed. Should that be considered?

Mark Aumann: Great point, and I hope that's not a deciding factor in voters' minds. These guys should be in or out based on their racing careers, not on whether they can give a speech at the ceremony. And Sam Ard certainly deserves consideration. Now that we've gotten through the obvious choices, the next couple of Hall of Fame classes should give us a much better feel for what the voters consider "important." I'm just hoping there's a consistency there.

Jarrod Breeze: If active drivers aren't eligible, then why are active owners?

Mark Aumann: Hey, that's a whole 'nother Track Smack.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writers.