Six hundred miles is a long way to race if you’re slow. That’s Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s concern heading into this weekend after what he called an “embarrassing” run in last weekend’s NASCAR All-Star Race.
Teams often use the All-Star Race to experiment with set-ups in hopes of hitting on something fast for this weekend’s Coca Cola 600, which, like the All-Star race, is held at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
But even if that was the case with Earnhardt and his 18th-place finish on Saturday was just the result of an experiment gone wrong, it’s hard to imagine his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team finding enough speed to keep up over the course of the season’s longest race.
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At 24th in points, Earnhardt, who will retire at the end of the season, needs a victory to qualify for the postseason. That was unlikely to happen at Charlotte even before his poor performance in the All-Star Race. Earnhardt has never won a points race at the Concord track, and his career average finish (19.0) is his second-worst on oval tracks.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has never won a points race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and his career average finish (19.0) is his second-worst on oval tracks.
He missed half of last season with concussion issues, and his return has resulted in statistically the worst season of his career. His average finish of 23.8 is lower than even his worst season during his mid-career slump.
And it’s not just Earnhardt who is struggling at Hendrick Motorsports. Aside from Chase Elliott (fourth in points), Hendrick is having a middling season across the board.
Kasey Kahne is 16th in points but would miss the postseason because a driver below him (Ryan Newman) has a win and would therefore bump him.
Jimmie Johnson’s two-race winning streak (Texas and Bristol) ended talk that he was slowing down … but those victories have masked the fact he’s not having a Johnson-esque season, either. He is on pace to set a career low in top-10s and have his fewest top-5s since his rookie season. His average starting position this year is 21.5, more than 10 spots worse than his career average.
All of which is to say: To whatever extent Earnhardt would lean on teammates to pull himself out of his slump – a questionable notion regardless – they’re not doing so great, either.
The confidence Dale Earnhardt Jr. regained in his career resurgence over the past few years seems to have vanished in 2017.
And there is some evidence that the problem for Earnhardt is not being fast, it’s staying fast: He has dropped an average of 10.7 positions from the middle of the race until the end.
He has been in the top 11 at the mid-point of the race eight times, but has finished better than 14th only once.
The confidence Earnhardt Jr. regained in his career resurgence over the past few years seems to have vanished in 2017.
“I’ve been racing a long time, and it’s hard not to get down,” he said on Periscope after the All-Star Race.
He vowed he would return for Sunday’s race with his chin up, but unless his car starts fast and stays that way, a positive attitude won’t matter.
Crossman on Twitter: @MattCrossman_