With the way that the 2009 season went for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and company there was absolutely no way that 2010 could be any worse. Suffering what was statistically his worse season in Sprint Cup Series racing, the No. 88 team was revamped coming into 2010.
A mid-season crew chief, shop and personnel changes were all on the menu in order to have the sports most popular driver run like his three teammates who had finished one-two-three in points last year. Team owner Rick Hendrick repeatedly said that Earnhardt Jr.’s team was ‘priority number one.’
When Speedweeks began it looked like the hard work was already paying off.
Earnhardt Jr. qualified second for the Daytona 500 and had a solid week leading up to the big race. He finished 11th in the Budweiser Shootout, and 21st in his Gatorade Duel race after nursing home the car and avoiding tearing it up before the Daytona 500.
Then everyone knows about his last lap heroics in the Great American Race that had both the media and Junior Nation singing his praises of "being back," and ready to show everyone what he’s made of. But a week later in California it was déjà vu when he qualified 27th and finished 32nd and those praises turned to "here we go again."
Flash forward to a Friday night at the Atlanta Motor Speedway.
As the 17th car to take a qualifying time Earnhardt Jr. went out and not only won the pole position for the Kobalt Tools 500, but he did so by setting the fastest qualifying time ever in NASCAR’s new car, the COT. It was his first pole of the year and first since April of 2008 at Texas.
While he’s still winless, he and his fans haven’t seen a checkered flag since June of 2008; Earnhardt Jr. is enjoying early and new success of a different kind thus far. Never one to be a qualifying contender, the No. 88 already has three top five starting spots in four races, at Las Vegas he was fourth after sitting on the pole earlier on.
Where did all this come from?
While being fast on Friday has yet to transfer into a finished that’s wanted on Sunday, much like Ryan Newman and his infamous pole positions, there are two new variables that Earnhardt Jr. is working with this year that are paying dividends.
First is that crew chief Lance McGrew has a new program: the first practice session of the weekend is focused solely on qualifying.
A driver’s qualifying position will do many things during a race; the most important being that it will help in picking a pit stall. If you’re near the front of the starting lineup you can get a better choice of a stall. If you qualify in the back you’re going to get stuck with what is left over.
That can cause many problems when pitting. You can be trapped behind drivers that park a certain way in their boxes, or get run into while pulling into and out of your box.
The second problem with qualifying in the back of the pack is that you have to spend much of your time trying to get to the front and making up the ground you’re already behind. Equipment can be used and abused early in the race, or a driver can be caught up in someone else’s mess. Qualifying poorly can really throw off the balance of a weekend.
McGrew doesn’t seem to want to deal with any of that and so far the new system has worked, as has the second variable: new racecars.
Lets be honest, the 2009 season couldn’t have been any more dismal for the 88 team if someone had written it to be that way. Everything and anything that could happen and go wrong, did for the team and driver. Didn't win a pole, didn't win a race, barely had any top fives and top tens, and missed the Chase.
Once you experience that there is no better reason to start over.
Now knowing what they did wrong last year the AMP Energy/National Guard team can change past wrongs. All the "bad" cars that didn’t perform last year should be sunk at the bottom of a lake. No need to use cars that don’t have any good in them, if they didn’t get the results that are expected, why would you still run them?
Pretty much being new. Results don’t lie and in the races that Earnhardt Jr. has raced a brand new car the difference is noticeable. If you look back to last year the first car that Lance McGrew ever built for the 88 team was at Indianapolis. They qualified third and had it not been for an engine failure would have finished in the top ten where they ran all day.
This year more new cars have been brought out: the Daytona 500 car, not the Budweiser Shootout car, was brand new, qualified and finished second. California was another new car but once again, it’s not a real good indication since a mechanical failure ruined their day.
Even though he wasn’t much of a factor by running in the 20s to 30s all day, the team reported they were gaining track position and a handling on the car before things went wrong.
Who knows where they might have finished.
Las Vegas was an older car, even though they qualified fourth after using McGrew’s new qualifying priority program, they weren’t a factor, lost a lap and finished in the 16th position.
Shouldn’t be surprising that when a brand new car was once again rolled out at Atlanta it was solid in the first practice, qualified on the pole, was the fastest in ten lap averages on Saturday and a favorite to win on Sunday.
Wins certainly would be nice but once again, after last year start over.
Get back to basics and crawl before you walk, walk before you run, and run before you start swinging for the fences and end up swinging so much you miss the Chase.
Sure, it would be great for Earnhardt Jr. to win, and he needs to, but he also needs to find that consistency he used to have, and consistency will get the team in the Chase where they also need to be.
Little by little, race by race, and lap by lap.
The first steps to really "being back" for Earnhardt Jr. are already in place, building brand new race cars that have proven they can get be fast and get the job done, as well as focusing on better starting positions. Four races in and they’ve shown everyone they can be fast, but they haven’t shown they can put a complete race together.
Fighting through what they did on Sunday, never giving up and earning back two laps to finish 15th in another step in the right direction as it helped their point effort. This is certainly a different team than fans saw last year. But they still have to stop shooting themselves in the foot come race time. For his part besides a speeding penalty in California, things on pit road have been smooth.
There have been no sliding through pit stalls, no missing pit stalls and so far no missed lug nuts by the team. Every little bit helps and about 90 percent of the trouble they had last year has already been correctly. Now it's time to take care of the rest.
When talking about his pole position Earnhardt Jr. said, “We're starving for a good finish and for something like this to happen on Sunday for us, and that's really all we can think about."
If they can turn how well they’ve qualified thus far this season into race results, the No. 88 team will be well feed this season.