When Jeff Gordon went home with his 85th career NASCAR Cup victory on Tuesday in a rain-delayed Advocare 500 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, it meant his teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. left the track for the 118th consecutive time without a win.
Four-time Cup champion Gordon drove into sole possession of third overall in career Cup wins with the Atlanta triumph, behind Richard Petty (200 wins) and David Pearson (105). Before the win in Georgia, Gordon was tied with Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip.
Although he didn’t have cause to do any burnouts following a 19th-place finish in Atlanta, Earnhardt had something to celebrate, since he signed a five-year extension to his contract with Hendrick Motorsports before the race. The deal will keep him with the team until 2017.
Maybe that will give him time to find some success with NASCAR’s top outfit, something that the series most popular driver hasn’t been able to do since joining the powerful Hendrick Motorsport family in 2008.
In just under four seasons with Hendrick, Earnhardt has one win and 18 top-five finishes in 133 starts with a team that was supposed to make him a championship contender. In the same time period, his teammate Jimmie Johnson racked up 21 wins, 59 top-fives, and three of his five consecutive Cup championships, Gordon put up four wins and 49 top-5s, and Mark Martin scored five wins and 27 top-5s.
Earnhardt, who drives the No . 88 Chevy, knows his stats just don’t stack up.
“I would give me barely a passing grade at this time,” he said after the deal was announced.
“I’m not content at all and I feel like I’ve been given some really good opportunities there and just haven’t been able to capitalize on it — haven’t been able to go to the race track and get on the race track and go fast.”
But it’s another story off the track, where Earnhardt’s unparalleled popularity makes him a valuable marketing property and attracts attention from top teams. Had Hendrick not inked his name on an extension, another outfit would have certainly thrown lots of green his way to lure him away.
Ironically, he’s just signed IndyCar’s biggest marketing asset, Danica Patrick, to race for his Nationwide team next season after she spent two years with his second tier NASCAR outfit in a part-time role which began last season. Her career seems to parallel Earnhardt’s with her rabidly loyal fans and unmatched star status away from the racetrack, but fleeting success as a driver. She has gone 64 races since her one and only win in IndyCar competition and is 1-for-113 overall in the series.
While his new hire will be running her last few IndyCar races before switching to stock cars full-time in 2012, Earnhardt has much more pressing business on the track.
After starting the season strong and looking like a title contender — he was as high as third in points earlier this year before fading — the ninth-placed but winless Earnhardt now needs a strong run in Richmond on Saturday night to secure a spot in the 10-race, playoff-style Chase for the Cup that decides the NASCAR season champion.
While 12 drivers still vie for the championship, this season the Chase format changed to award the final two spots to the top drivers in points who placed between 12th and 20th in the standings who have the most wins. Right now, one of those places belongs to Penske’s Brad Keselowski in 11th, whose three wins get him in no matter what. With one race to go before the Chase begins, Denny Hamlin holds the second wildcard spot.
Although Earnhardt is 25 points ahead of Keselowski, things remain worrisome for the Hendrick driver. A strong run for Keselowski and Tony Stewart, who is 10th overall and also winless, in Richmond could find Earnhardt on the outside of the Chase looking in for the third time in the past four years. On the other hand, all Earnhardt needs to do is cross the line 20th or better to wrap up a spot.
That shouldn’t be a tall order for someone driving in a top team and a driver who has bettered that finish in all but two of his last 10 starts.
But, then again, anything can happen and Earnhardt feels that clinching will bring a sigh of relief.
“Everyone expects you to make the Chase and you get labelled when you don’t make the Chase and I want to avoid being in that situation,” he said.
“I made a few mistakes and a few driver errors that I really wish I could have back now, that I tried to tell myself not to make all year. We just have to learn from those and not do them again. I think I will just be relieved if I make the Chase. I want to win this championship and be a champion one day. I think that is what everybody out there driving strives to do.”
More trouble for Barnhart?
No matter how hard he tries, IndyCar president of operations Brian Barnhart just can’t get himself out of the spotlight.
A few weeks after a five-car pile-up highlighted a disastrous call he made to restart a race in New Hampshire despite protests from drivers that it was too wet, Barnhart’s ability to run a race is being questioned — again.
A day after the inaugural IndyCar event in Baltimore, a video of the race start has surfaced, clearly showing a safety truck almost running headlong into the field as the cars rounded Turn 1. The truck was speeding to get behind the wall on the outside of the corner where it was likely stationed.
Now, it really shouldn’t be outlandish to presume that race control would confirm the locations of all the safety vehicles before it gives the order to wave the green light to start the race. Instead, the heart-stopping footage shows the truck was so close that a split second delay by its driver would have seen it careen into Ganassi’s Graham Rahal head on, most likely with devastating results.
IndyCar suspended the driver of the truck for the next two races.