Considering its circuit has been plagued by empty seats, declining television ratings and a suspicion that Jimmie Johnson might be racing with an engine that has the word, “Cessna” on it, NASCAR actually had a pretty good day Sunday.
♦ Somebody other than Johnson, the sport’s four-time defending champion and winner of two of this season’s first three races, won the Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Alas, some semblance of competition lives for one week.
♦ There was a close finish, with two late cautions bunching the field and Kurt Busch edging Matt Kenseth by a half-second. The two late wrecks extended the race 16 laps longer than scheduled, technically making this the Kobalt Tools 524.64.
♦ Nobody died but a car flipped! Carl “The Maniac” Edwards, in payback for one of them racin’ things, a wreck at Talladega last season, rammed Brad Keselowski late in the race. Keselowski’s car went airborne and flipped but landed tires down. Edwards was black-flagged. Then he had this wonderful defense: “That’s a deal between him and I.” Keselowski’s rebuttal: “That’s not cool. He could’ve killed someone in the grandstands. I know it’s ironic to hear me saying that but I didn’t wreck him [at Talladega] intentionally.” This should be a quick prosecution by NASCAR.
OK, so that was the good stuff.
For balance, we give you Dale Earnhardt Jr.
He lost again. He started first and ran in the 30s much of the day. He finished 15th, the benefit of late caution flags. Earnhardt’s not in a slump anymore. He passed slump about 37 excuses ago.
He has failed to win in 61 straight races. He has won once in the last 138 starts.
The big problem with this is the Sprint Cup circuit is devoid of a great rivalry. Earnhardt, one of the sport’s biggest personalities, could provide that, if only he could remember how to drive.
He started on the pole Sunday. He never led a lap. I’m no racing expert, but how do you win the pole and never lead a lap?
I’ve seen dudes with road rage on 285 who have better passing instincts.
“We’re just running into some bad luck,” Earnhardt maintained. “We’re just not getting it done. We’ll get it done. When it happens, it happens. We’re just not the best team right now.”
Earnhardt should not be spreading the blame to the team. This is on him.
Cars win qualifying. Drivers win races.
Earnhardt complained of “funky right rear” tire issues in Sunday’s race. Funny thing was, every time he pulled into the pits to complain about something being “loose,” his crew couldn’t find a problem.
Let’s not blame the car. Earnhardt averaged 192.761 miles per hour in qualifying. That’s a NASCAR record since cars were redesigned (read: slowed) in 2007 for safety reasons.
Don’t blame the team, either. Hendrick Motorsports is NASCAR’s ’27 Yankees in terms of money and resources. They’ve won nine Sprint Cup championships. Teammate Jimmy Johnson has won the last four titles. He took checkered in two of the first three races this season.
The other two team members: Mark Martin won five races last year and finished second in the standings and Jeff Gordon (82 wins) is a relative icon, and last season he had one victory, 16 top-5 finishes and finished third.
Again, that standings rundown for Hendrick’s four drivers in 2009: 1-2-3-25.
Earnhardt was passed shortly after the green flag by Kyle Busch. There’s some irony. When Earnhardt split with his evil stepmother, Teresa, then left DEI following the 2007 season and signed with Hendrick, he replaced Busch. In the two-plus seasons since that time, Busch has won 12 races, Earnhardt zero.
It was easy to paint Teresa Earnhardt, the late Dale’s wife, as the bad guy/girl in the stepmom-stepson cat fight. But when she alluded to Dale’s flood of endorsement deals and told the Wall Street Journal in 2007, “Right now the ball’s in his court to decide on whether he wants to be a NASCAR driver or whether he wants to be a public personality,” she pretty much nailed it.
Then again, if the losing continues, the public personality side of Earnhardt will fade as well.