Junior making a home at Hendrick
SI.com's Mark Beech offers the most intriguing news, notes and analysis fans need to know heading into each week's race.
Back in April, I wrote in this space that the end of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s winless streak was only a matter of time. That was on the eve of Talladega -- the season's ninth race -- and it was clear that Little E and crew chief Tony Eury Jr. were already making the most of the superior resources and technology they now have access to at Hendrick Motorsports.
This week in the magazine, in the wake of Junior's win at Michigan, I amended my prediction just a bit. It seems clear to me that at least one more win, and possibly a Cup championship, may be only a matter of time. Outside of Kyle Busch, I'm not sure there's been a better driver in NASCAR's top series in 2008.
Yes, Carl Edwards seems to be more of a threat to win, but he hasn't been quite as consistent as Junior, who has had several other chances to win this year himself, most notably at Richmond. If Earnhardt can remain steady through the summer months -- a time that even he admits has not historically been a good one for him -- then he should be well positioned for the Chase, where he says he loves the schedule.
There's reason to believe that Earnhardt has a chance to have a solid summer. He and Eury have already coaxed a few top-five and top-10 finishes out of races that have given the driver trouble in the past, including Las Vegas (where he finished second), Charlotte (where he ran fifth) and Michigan. I'm not saying we should expect him to win this weekend at Infineon. Even Junior's not saying that. But I wouldn't be surprised to see him win once more before the Chase. Heck, I'd be surprised if he didn't win once more.
Last fall at Texas, I visited with Eury while Earnhardt raced out a meaningless string to finish the season. At that time, the crew chief had already made the move from Dale Earnhardt Inc. to Hendrick Motorsports. It was clear that he was excited to get to work with some gadgets that he'd only previously heard about, namely a computer simulator.
He was also eager to apply the knowledge that he was acquiring not only from Chad Knaus and Steve Letarte -- the pit bosses for the Hendrick superduo of Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon -- but also from the engineers and technicians on staff at HMS. These were resources that went beyond extra money, and that hadn't ever been available to him at Dale Earnhardt Inc. I think it's fair to say that while Eury and Junior now have all the resources they could ever want, there aren't many people in the Cup garage who are getting more out of what they have.
And so the wisdom of Earnhardt's move to Hendrick at the end of last season has been validated. He moved to HMS to compete for a championship, and that is exactly what he is doing. No wonder TV ratings are back up this year.
How to Drive
Tony Stewart talks about what it takes to win on Sonoma's road course: "You've just got to have a good handling car. Aerodynamics are not the least bit important at Sonoma, which is great because it's one of the few tracks that we go to that we don't have to worry about aero balance or anything like that. It's just a matter of keeping a well-balanced car all day and having good pit stops and pit strategy and staying out of trouble. A lot can happen at Sonoma.
"You've got to be patient all day. You get a lot of cautions there and a lot of guys end up beating and banging on each other. I mean, the cars look like they've been to a race at Martinsville (Va.) because it's a short road course. Save that car for the last 20 laps because that's the critical time. Do what you have to do to get through the first 90 laps, but those last 20 are the ones when you really have to go, and you need your car to be in one piece to make it happen."
16: Top-10 finishes for Gordon and Stewart at Infineon in 24 combined starts.
0: Top-10 finishes for Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne at Infineon in 12 combined starts.
7: Laps led last year at Infineon by Juan Pablo Montoya en route to his first Cup victory.
June 28, 1998: From the pole, Gordon leads a race-high 48 laps en route to victory in the Save Mart/Kragen 350. The win is the first of three in a row for Gordon at Infineon.