As the only driver from Hendrick Motorsports who failed to qualify for the Chase, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been a largely forgotten man these past few weeks. Then again, this entire season has been a lost one for Little E, who turns a not-so-little 35 on Saturday. He's currently sitting on a winless streak of 50 races, has only two top five finishes in 29 starts and has seven of Hendrick's 16 finishes in 35th place or worse. Yes, Earnhardt's career is at a crossroads, which is why the final seven races of '09 are so important for his future and that of the number 88 team.
"We need to start turning this around and build momentum for next season," Earnhardt said on Sunday at Kansas Speedway minutes before the start of the Price Chopper 400. Referring to owner Rick Hendrick, he added, "I want to keep this team together, but ultimately that's the boss's decision. But I think we've turned a corner."
Kansas may have marked that turning point. Last Friday, Earnhardt qualified second—his best qualifying effort of the season—and then on Sunday he blazed past Mark Martin, his Hendrick teammate and the Chase leader, to pace the field for 41 of the first 53 laps. Earnhardt fell a lap down when a tire changer missed a lug nut on his left rear tire during a pit stop, prompting NASCAR to order him back onto pit road, yet Earnhardt displayed tantalizing speed and handling for most of the afternoon. Though an oil-pump belt broke late on the number 88 Chevy and Earnhardt finished 36th behind winner Tony Stewart (box), the race was a moral victory for Earnhardt and his crew chief, Lance McGrew, who in May replaced Junior's longtime crew chief, Tony Eury Jr. The outing was particularly significant because Earnhardt was piloting the first race car that McGrew built especially for him: Featuring a lighter chassis, it will serve as a model for Little E's cars in 2010.
"We're seeing flashes of improvement," says McGrew, who had been the head of Hendrick's research and development team. "We're still building up Junior's confidence, which really had taken a hit. He doubted everything he did."
Earnhardt's biggest problem this season has been his performance during the second halves of races. After the midpoint is when he has committed pit-road gaffes, triggered wrecks and missed his marks through the turns. "Junior needs to get his ass to the gym," says one member of a rival team. "He gets tired late in races and loses his concentration."
While McGrew acknowledges that his driver isn't the fittest in the garage, he believes that what's holding the team back is his own lack of experience with Earnhardt, as well as not having deciphered how to make the car consistently handle to the driver's liking. Hendrick will meet with the pair before the Oct. 17 Charlotte race to let them know if they'll be together next season. On Sunday, Hendrick said that he's happy with their "chemistry," so it's likely the team will remain intact for 2010—a year that is shaping up to be the most pivotal of Earnhardt's career. It will be his third season at Hendrick, and even though the owner is a father figure to Little E, he won't tolerate mediocrity much longer from the highest-earning driver in NASCAR.
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Chase analysis by Lars Anderson and Mark Beech's Racing Fan at SI.com/bonus