For the second race in a row, Dale Earnhardt Jr. leaves with not only heartbreak, but a smile in hopes that his change of luck will happen soon. The monkey is still on the back of the 88 team, as the streak now hits 106 races since his last Sprint Cup victory. Oddly enough, Earnhardt Jr. has had two chances in the last two weeks to throw the monkey off, but has been unsuccessful in doing so.
Between last week’s Coca-Cola 600 and this week’s STP 400, it sure seems as if fuel mileage is the key to getting into Victory Lane. Both times, driver of the #88 machine Earnhardt Jr., has finished in the top ten (P7 last week and P2 today), which goes with the saying “If you’re not first, you’re last!”. Quite frankly, Jr. is tired of being “last”, the longer this streak continues the heavier that monkey gets. Simple things during the race seems to react as if they were nails in the coffin for Jr.’s hopes of getting that victory. Last week, Jr. was just 500ft away from securing his victory, but completely ran out of gas ruining his hopes. This week, a mid-race spin might have prevented him from ending the streak, something that Jr. wants gone pretty soon.
It’s not a matter of “if” Jr. will get in victory lane, but a matter of “when”. I believe we can all say this 88 group has made some massive improvements over the last year or so, probably one of the largest improvements in all of NASCAR. The question still remains, who is responsible for such an improvement? To answer quite simply, Rick Hendrick. Rick, who had the intellect to switch up three of his four Crew Chiefs over the off-season is beginning to see it all pay off. With Gordon’s win earlier this season and Jr’s improvements, one might believe that Hendrick Motorsports should be stronger than they were in previous seasons, this is not so. With Roush Fenway preforming the way they have and RCR’s improvements, HMS has done nothing much but play “catch up”.
If HMS had been as productive as they have been in the past, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Jr., with three wins this year. When was the last time someone could say that? But we can’t play “coulda, woulda, shoulda’s” in these present times, because we are still waiting to see Jr. victorious again.
Looking back at the STP 400, Jr. said, “I had a good car, you know. I spun out up there tryin’ to find a little more speed on the top. We had a fast car though. Just started way back there in the back, man. We ain’t qualified no better than 22nd besides Daytona and Talladega. We need to fix that somehow. It was a fast car.”
Could a great qualifying run be the key for Jr.? Could it really be that simple? Could these obstacles that have been preventing Jr., to feel like he is on top of the world, just go away? Will it ever grow old? These are the questions we are still waiting to have answered, and I have a feeling that these questions will be answered sooner rather than later.