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Published by: The Dallas Morning News on Apr 12, 2012
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TMS Race Week

Nationwide O’Reilly Auto Parts 300, 7:30 p.m. Friday (ESPN2) Sprint Cup Samsung Mobile 500, 6:30 p.m.Saturday (Ch. 4)

Fame and famine
Popularity holds no key to success for Earnhardt Jr., who hasn’t won since ’08
Staff Writer gfraley@dallasnews.com

On June 15, 2008, Dale Earnhardt Jr. hit on a fuel-strategy gamble to win the Lifelock 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Michigan International Speedway. In victory circle, Earnhardt crowed, “My fans are happy, and I’m happy for them. … It’s a big day for me.” And then, the drought began. Earnhardt will go into Satur-

day night’s Samsung Mobile 500 at Texas Motor Speedway winless in 135 Cup starts since that grand day in Brooklyn, Mich. A total of 26 drivers have won a Cup race in that span. Jimmie Johnson tops the list with 21 victories. Whatever happened to Dale Earnhardt Jr.? In the 135-race shutout, Earnhardt has been bedeviled by factors ranging from a carousel at crew chief to running out of gas when leading at the finish. His popularity

remains unrivaled, but it is based more on the proud family name than his accomplishments. “I’m glad it’s not me, I can tell you that,” said Cup series leader Greg Biffle, winless in his last 49 starts. “There’s a lot of people wondering when he’s going to win again. … When you have a figure like that, that means a lot to our sport. Some of us joke a little bit about getting him a win.” The anatomy of a 0-for-135 slump:

Longest dry spells
A look at the longest active winless streaks among current full-time Sprint Cup racers:
Driver Dave Blaney Bobby Labonte Joe Nemechek Casey Mears Martin Truex Jr. A.J. Allmendinger Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jeff Burton Joey Logano Mark Martin No. 403 293 258 174 173 158 135 119 97 85 Last win Never won Homestead, Nov. 16, 2003 Kansas, Oct. 10, 2004 Charlotte, May 27, 2007 Dover, June 4, 2007 Never won Michigan, June 15, 2008 Charlotte, Oct. 11, 2008 New Hampshire, June 28, 2009 New Hampshire, Sept. 26, 2009

Lack of stability at crew chief
Family is important to Earnhardt. It seemed natural that when he became a fulltime Cup racer in 2000, uncle Tony Eury Sr. served as his crew chief. When Earnhardt endured crew chief turmoil in 2005, he ended the season with cousin Tony Eury Jr. Loyalty to family hurt Earnhardt. He began losing ground with Eury as crew chief but doggedly stayed with him. They moved together as a package to powerful Hendrick Motorsports in 2008. After 12 races of the 2009 season, team owner Rick Hendrick stepped in and removed Eury. The win at Michigan was Earnhardt’s lone victory in his final 120 races with Eury. The team finished 20th or worse in 12 of their final 21 races together. Earnhardt fell deeper into the hole during less than two full seasons with Lance McGrew. Earnhardt has shown improvement since being paired with Steve Letarte before last season. Letarte, with Jeff Gordon for the previous six seasons, has focused on rebuilding Earnhardt’s confidence. “Those two guys really like working with each other,” Hendrick said after last season. “We’ve got a good combination there. You just don’t go from running 15th and 18th to winning four or five races. I’m happy with the process.”

Chuck Burton/The Associated Press

Earnhardt’s loyalty to cousin and crew chief Tony Eury Jr. (right) did little to change things as the slump worsened.

Chief difficulties
A look at Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s performance by crew chiefs during his 135-race winless streak:
Crew chief Lance McGrew Steve Letarte Tony Eury Jr. Brian Whitesell Races 59 42 33 1 Top-5 4 7 5 0 Top-10 10 16 8 0

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrated a NASCAR Sprint Cup victory at Brooklyn, Mich., on June 15, 2008, but has since gone 135 races without winning. Even the backing of powerful Hendrick Motorsports hasn’t gotten Earnhardt’s career on track.

Coming close adds more frustration
Earnhardt has not run only in the middle of the pack during his winless streak. He has finished second six times during the slump. Sometimes, racing luck hurt him. In other races, he did not have enough to catch the winner. A few decisions backfired. The breakdown of the second-place runs: Martinsville, Oct. 19, 2008: Johnson led 339 of the 500 laps, but the race came down to a green-whitecheckered duel between Johnson and Earnhardt. It was no contest. Johnson roared away on the re-start, winning by nearly one second. Talladega, April 26, 2009: Earnhardt, at his best on the restrictorplate tracks of Daytona and Talladega, was second with four laps remaining, but Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards passed him. Keselowski spun out Edwards in the final run, and Earnhardt went back into second. Daytona, Feb. 14, 2010: Running 10th with two laps remaining, Earnhardt rallied but could not track down Jamie McMurray. It was Earnhardt’s closest call during the streak. McMurray beat him by only .119 of a second. Martinsville, April 3, 2011: With four laps remaining, Kevin Harvick passed Earnhardt to take the lead. Earnhardt could have bumped Harvick out of the lead but declined to make a move that was part of his father’s repertoire. Earnhardt said had

Car of Tomorrow held no advances
When the boxier “Car of Tomorrow” debuted at Bristol Motor Speedway in 2007, Earnhardt gave it faint praise. “It wasn’t a disaster like everyone anticipated,” Earnhardt said. Little did he know. The COT became a turning point in Earnhardt’s career, and not for the good. In the previous format, Earnhardt had 17 wins in 275 Cup races. With the COT, he has only one win in 166 starts. There are no secrets within the Hendrick operation. Earnhardt knows what information teammate Jimmie Johnson has accumulated on the way to winning 27 COT races. That difference rests with the driver. Johnson was quick to pick up on the COT’s nuances. Earnhardt was slow to adapt to the looser handling of the COT, even with the return of the spoiler. Earnhardt likes to run on the high side. In the COT era, that has led to brushes with the walls.

Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

Jamie McMurray crossed the finish line .119 of a second ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the 2010 Daytona 500, the closest call Earnhardt has had in the six second-place showings he has made in his winless run.

he bumped Harvick, he likely would have been involved in a wreck. Kansas, June 5, 2011: For the second consecutive week, fuel strategy worked against Earnhardt. A week earlier at Charlotte, Earnhardt led coming out of the final turn and ran out of fuel. He coasted in at seventh. At Kansas, Brad Keselowski did not make a green-flag stop for fuel

and took the lead by 10 seconds over Earnhardt with 10 laps remaining. Keselowski rationed his fuel and beat Earnhardt by 2.813 seconds. Daytona, Feb. 27, 2012: Earnhardt began the final lap trailing two Roush-Fenway Racing drivers, Matt Kenseth and Biffle. As Biffle gave Kenseth a needed push, Earnhardt inexplicably did not team up with Denny Hamlin. Earnhardt passed

Biffle, but without a push partner, did not have enough to catch Kenseth. Hamlin said he was willing to help Earnhardt and “I didn’t understand” the late-race strategy. Earnhardt said his only chance was to get behind Kenseth and use the slingshot move in the home stretch. Earnhardt getting a push from Hamlin would not have helped him enough to catch Kenseth.

Tomorrow’s best
A look at the wins leaders during the Car of Tomorrow era:
Driver Jimmie Johnson Kyle Busch Denny Hamlin Tony Stewart Carl Edwards No. 27 20 16 15 14

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