Aftermath, Pocono II: Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Chase Hopes Are Over ... Now What?

LONG POND PA - JULY 31: Dale Earnhardt Jr. driver of the #88 AMP Energy/National Guard Chevrolet prepares to drive during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono Raceway on July 31 2010 in Long Pond Pennsylvania. (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR)

There are some people who will read this column and say, "Duh! A monkey could have told me that!"

Others will read it and become so upset, they'll call me names, click "Unfollow" on Twitter and vow to never visit SB Nation again.

Such are the reactions you get when broaching the touchy subject of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s struggles.

But if we're all being honest with ourselves today, this appears to be the truth: Earnhardt Jr.'s Chase chances are finished, and NASCAR's postseason won't have the sport's most popular driver for the fourth time in the last six seasons.

Junior Nation woke up this morning hoping the point standings following Sunday's Pocono race were either incorrect or the remnants of a bad dream.

The numbers aren't quite Elliot-Sadler-wreck-ugly, but they certainly aren't pretty: The standings show Earnhardt Jr. as being 129 points out of a Chase spot with just five races to go.

Face it, Junior fans: A comeback isn't going to happen.

Sure, if the No. 88 team was running well, there could be reason for Junior Nation to hold out hope. But there's no evidence to support that fading optimism. Take a look at the facts:

  • Clint Bowyer is now the only Chase driver within Earnhardt Jr.'s reach after Greg Biffle's victory. Biffle, in 11th place, is 217 points ahead of 14th-place Earnhardt Jr.
  • To catch Bowyer, Earnhardt Jr. would have to pick up nearly 26 points per race on Bowyer for each of the remaining five races before the Chase begins – that's somewhere around six-to-eight positions per event.
  • Earnhardt Jr.'s team hasn't run well enough to catch Bowyer (or to pass teammate Mark Martin in 13th place). Bowyer has 11 top-10 finishes this season; Earnhardt Jr. has six.

Simply put, there's no reason to believe Earnhardt Jr.'s team can pull off the kind of dramatic turnaround that would be needed to make the Chase. Teams don't just suddenly catch fire in August after being average all year, especially in a no-testing era.

So if you're an Earnhardt Jr. fan, what now?

Earnhardt Jr. will turn 36 in a couple months but has said he wants to continue driving for another 10 to 15 years. Surely, at some point he'll find a situation that allows him to again win multiple races in a season.

I believe it can happen. There's a vocal contingent of Junior haters who often try to lump him in with Danica in the ranks of overrated drivers. But I've always rejected that idea based on Earnhardt Jr.'s career stats.

While it's true Earnhardt Jr.'s popularity and level of actual success are not comparable, the dude CAN drive. It's not like he's made a name for himself based solely on commercials or the success of his father.

Earnhardt Jr. has won 18 career races – as many as Matt Kenseth and several more than Greg Biffle, Ryan Newman and Kevin Harvick. He once won six times in a single season (2004) and had a legitimate shot at the championship that year. Overall, he's made the Chase three times.

Those are the numbers of a winning driver, not of a mediocre one. I agree he's had overwhelmingly average results since joining Hendrick Motorsports – a disappointment for everyone involved – but given his past success it's unfair to put all the blame on the driver.

As we learned with Jamie McMurray recently, fast cars go fast. When a driver gets in the right situation, he can succeed and win.

I still believe Hendrick is the right place for Earnhardt Jr. to do that – there are too many smart people there not to figure out how to get those cars to drive better.

And the 88 has improved from last year to this year by adding an engineer from Martin's No. 5 team – just not enough to run up front and contend for wins. Would another piece along those lines elevate Earnhardt Jr.'s group from a top-15 team to one that runs in the top 10 consistently?

Junior Nation seems divided on whether crew chief Lance McGrew is the right man for the job. I'm not sure on this one. There's no doubt McGrew is a smart, capable crew chief; whether he's a good fit for Earnhardt Jr. is the question.

The caustic radio chatter between the two this season has occasionally led outsiders to believe the team is on the verge of a breakdown. But both driver and crew chief say the back-and-forth is simply part of their relationship, and they seem OK with the nasty-sounding disagreements.

All drivers and crew chiefs snap at one another from time to time, but Earnhardt Jr. and McGrew seem to make it a regular occurrence, which recalls the days when Earnhardt Jr. worked with his cousin Tony Eury Jr.

Is Earnhardt Jr.'s relationship with McGrew rightfully put in the spotlight? Or do we use it as a scapegoat for everything that's wrong with the 88 team?

When Earnhardt Jr. discusses his team, he often praises its hard work but says it's not championship material. That seems accurate.

To those not in the organization, Earnhardt Jr.'s team appears to have difficulty giving him the comfort and speed he needs inside the car. And even on the weekends where the car is good, the team seems to make the wrong adjustments or has a faulty pit call during the race.

An excellent team can overcome those things, which some people label as "racing luck." Jimmie Johnson, for example, has so much success because his team out-runs the bad luck and can overcome nearly anything.

Earnhardt Jr.'s team is somewhat similar to Jeff Burton's team at Richard Childress Racing – even on good days, it often seems to shoot itself in the foot. Except Earnhardt Jr.'s bad days seem worse than Burton's, and his good days aren't quite as good.

Any way you slice it, that's not the hallmark of a championship-contending team. But for all we know, the 88 may only be a small adjustment away – in these days of ultra-tight competition, something small can be the difference between first and 15th (see Kevin Harvick's team for proof).

Can McGrew and the 88 team find the answer?

With the team's Chase hopes having all but disappeared, McGrew and his crew can search for improvements while starting to plan for next year. And next year will be a make-or-break season for the current group.

Because if the present members of the 88 team can't turn Earnhardt Jr.'s career around in 2011, it will be time for someone else to give it a try.

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