NASCAR may be in for a Chase without Junior
With a poor shownig at Vegas Sunday, Junior could drop from the top 35
There's speculation that Earnhard's crew chief, Tony Eury, could be replaced
Kenseth could become the first to win three straight races to start a season
Most people expected Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to get better -- and to compete for a championship -- when he moved to Hendrick Motorsports last season. And before he suffered a mid-summer swoon, Junior seemed well on the way to meeting those expectations. He started 2008 hotter than just about every driver but Kyle Busch, reeling off seven top-10 finishes in the first nine races.
One of those top-10s was especially indicative of just how hot Junior was. On March 2, he finished second to Carl Edwards in the UAW-Dodge 400 at Las Vegas. It was certainly a performance that caught my attention. Earnhardt, you see, has never really liked Vegas. In eight previous starts there, he'd finished inside the top 10 on just two other occasions, and had led fewer than 7 percent of the laps he'd run. He'd failed to complete two races, and his average finish was a dismal 20th. But his second-place run was a harbinger of things to come -- Junior promptly ran off three straight top-6 finishes.
Vegas was a barometer for NASCAR's most popular driver in '08, but it's something much more important this time around. After finishing 27th at a mistake-filled Daytona and 39th after his engine blew at Fontana, Junior comes to Sin City in desperate circumstances. He's 35th in owner points, and a poor showing in Vegas could put him in a serious bind -- specifically, if he's outside the top-35 after five races, the sport's top draw could be faced with having to qualify for races on speed. Will Junior Nation show up (or tune in) to see a race for which Junior himself did not qualify? It's a scenario that, if it's not concerning NASCAR bigwigs like Brian France and Mike Helton, is probably scaring the daylights out of more than a few racetrack marketing departments.
Fortunately, Races 4 and 5 (at Atlanta and Bristol) on the Cup schedule set up very favorably for Junior. He's got one win apiece at each track, and a combined 20 top-10 finishes in 37 starts. He's not a lock, certainly, but I can't imagine him not being able to hold onto at least the 35th spot. Heck, if he just takes care of his car and does his best to avoid mistakes, he should at least eke into the top 30 by the time it's all said and done.
As to his prospects for the rest of the season, that's a tough call. There's increasing speculation that longtime crew chief (and cousin) Tony Eury, Jr. could be replaced. But that, I think, isn't going to happen unless Rick Hendrick demands it. Earnhardt and Eury are too close and know each other too well. Besides, while I've been critical in the past of some late-race mistakes by the pair, it's hard to pin this season's troubles on the pit boss. It's not Eury's fault that Junior kept overshooting his pit box at Daytona. Nor is the blown engine at Fontana his responsibility.
But if the team doesn't turn things around fast, it's going to be hard for them to keep up with the rest of the pack. They basically have until the Michigan race in June, I think, to creep back near the top 12. Even Junior admits that most of the races between that date and the beginning of the Chase -- at places like Chicago, Indy, Sonoma and Watkins Glen -- do not set up well for them. If he's outside of the top 15 after Michigan, then I think it's going to be very tough for him to make the Chase, which makes the races this spring -- and that includes Sunday at Vegas -- extremely important. The time is now. It has to be.
2 Wins for Matt Kenseth in the first two races of the 2009 season
0: Number of times since 1949 that a driver has started a season with three straight victories
2: Number of victories, in nine starts, for Kenseth at Vegas in his career
THE PHOTO FINISH
Call it Your Five Minutes of Zen. I'm not a big fan of parades -- never saw much point in sitting and watching things pass me by. Still, I have to admit there's something vaguely hypnotic about a slow procession of about 50 brightly-colored 18-wheelers on the Las Vegas Strip. I'm not sayin' I have a good reason for it, I'm just sayin'...