Earnhardt Jr. hopes to duplicate earlier win at Michigan
Considering last year's August race at Michigan International Speedway was delayed by rain for more than two days, one has to wonder if lightning can strike twice in two different ways this weekend.
First, obviously, is the forecast. Will predicted rains hold off so that NASCAR can run the 3M Performance 400 as scheduled?
Secondly, can Dale Earnhardt Jr., who broke a 76-race winless streak – the longest of his Cup career – at MIS in June return to make it two in a row at the south-central Michigan racing facility?
And, uh, oh, by the way – for those Junior fans who thought their favorite driver would go on a tear once he broke that winless streak: he hasn't won since that June event at MIS.
But that doesn't mean the driver of the No. 88 National Guard/Amp Energy Chevrolet Impala SS can't repeat what he did in June on this Sunday.
Even though he's slipped somewhat of late, failing to record even one top-10 finish in his last four races (and just one top-10 in his last seven events), Earnhardt is looking for a return to victory lane at MIS.
"We want to come back here and make it two in a row," Earnhardt said after his win at MIS in June.
Earnhardt's victory came just two days after NASCAR president Mike Helton had a drivers-only meeting, urging them to restrain, if not totally stop, their criticism of the new-style Cup car that has caused so many complaints from drivers, crew chiefs, team owners and fans this season.
Now, nearly two months after Earnhardt's only win thus far this season, little has changed, for the most part. While drivers have been a bit more restrained in their complaints about the new car, they still have a lot to say about it, Earnhardt included.
"I think the car themselves should drive better than they do," he said prior to Sunday's race at Watkins Glen, where he finished a disappointing 22nd. "It seems like they have gotten a little bit more of a handful because we when we first started running these cars (last year), it was mainly on short tracks.
"I felt like the car was actually pretty good (then). I was real happy with it the first several races of last year, the forward bite and how the car came off the corner. I thought it was going to be a good deal. Once we started going to the mile-and-a-half tracks and the larger race tracks, we started seeing a big difference in grip from the old car or the lack of it."
While complaints persist, NASCAR officials have done virtually nothing to enhance the new car or to make it perform more towards drivers' liking. The constant mantra from Helton, NASCAR chairman Brian France and other high-ranking officials is typically the same: it's going to take two or three years to get all the kinks and bugs worked out.
And given that this is only the first full year of the new car (last year, the car was raced in just 16 of the season's 36 races), time may truly be what's needed.
Yet, despite Helton's pleas at MIS in June, Earnhardt thinks drivers should continue to speak their mind, albeit in a more diplomatic and even-handed manner.
Maybe only then will NASCAR finally listen – or get tired of hearing all the criticism – and start working on making the car more drivable and competitive.
"I think we still have to keep a little pressure in the right areas to persuade change in this car in the future to let it evolve and allow it to improve," Earnhardt said. "It can be better, but I think instead of being part of the problem, everybody needs to try to be part of the solution.
"The car definitely can be a little bit better. I think we just need to learn from it and understand and try to be willing to make the changes and see what gains we can get in overall drivability."
And maybe pick up a few more wins in the process, starting with this weekend's race as Junior looks to become the first driver to earn a season sweep at the same track this year.
Jerry Bonkowski is National NASCAR Columnist for Yahoo! Sports (Yahoo.com) and a featured contributor to Gatehouse News Service. He can be reached atNASCARColumnist@Yahoo.com.
THE DALE EARNHARDT JR. FILE
--By finishing 22nd at Watkins Glen, Earnhardt dropped two spots – from second to fourth – in the Cup standings heading into this weekend's race at Michigan.
--Since his June win at Michigan, Earnhardt has struggled to earn good finishes. His record in the last seven events since Michigan: 12th, 24th, 8th, 16th, 12th, 12th and 22nd.
--Earnhardt has failed to make the Chase for the Cup in two of the last three seasons, but with four races left until this year's Chase begins, he's pretty much a lock to make it.