CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- They started with the same setup they had used at the same track in July, added a few new ideas to it, and the result was a disaster. The car was slow in opening practice, and they spent so much time trying to make it better, they barely got in one mock qualifying run. The problems from Friday bled into Saturday, and when the race started Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Dale Earnhardt Jr. did not have a very good feeling about how competitive he was going to be.
"It was inevitable to me that the car wasn't going to be what we needed," he said, "and it wasn't."
That much quickly became evident when almost all the other drivers in the Chase field stormed toward the front while Earnhardt lingered mid-pack, struggling to make up ground. The result was a 13th-place finish that left him seventh in the standings and 26 points behind current championship leader Jimmie Johnson. He seemed relieved to have salvaged that much. "It should have been worse," Earnhardt said.
And just like that, only two races in, Earnhardt's best chance in years to capture an elusive Cup Series title is at something of a crossroads. Given the strength Johnson traditionally has shown in the tracks in the playoff, given the run Denny Hamlin is on, given the potential Brad Keselowski is showing, NASCAR's most popular driver needs a turnaround, and quickly. He's not out of it, not by any means, not with eight weeks remaining. But to get back in the championship mix Earnhardt needs to face down adversity -- something he's perhaps better equipped to do now than at any other point in his career.
It hasn't always been that way. In the past Earnhardt has allowed frustration and disappointment to seep inside him, to color the feedback he provides to his team, to derail his focus and detonate his attitude. There were times when car owner Rick Hendrick needed to intervene over the radio. It all came from the right place, of course, a desire to get better and contend for race wins, but the process could be painful to watch. Contrast all that with Sunday at New Hampshire, when an aggravated driver ran around 20th most of the day in a balky car, and somehow managed a 13th-place result that prevented his Chase deficit from being much deeper than it is.
Now, that doesn't mean the No. 88 team can afford to miss the setup again or bungle through another practice session, particularly not now with its margin for error so thin. But Sunday at New Hampshire used to be the kind of day that took Earnhardt completely out of it, where problem mounted upon problem mounted upon problem, where radio communication grew terse and defeat hung in the air like a dangling pit-stall sign. So much of the Chase is about crisis management, of not letting small issues turn into big ones or big ones turn into crippling ones. Sooner or later, every team involved will face a circumstance where the response is capable of determining its fate. On that front, at the very least, Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte left themselves a chance.
"It's something I've been trying to work on, trying to tone down my attitude a little bit more when things aren't going right, and trying to be more a part of the solution than part of the problem," Earnhardt said Tuesday in a question-and-answer session with fans at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. "I know that Steve is going to work the best, and have the best chance at fixing the car, if I keep a calm attitude when I'm giving him information. If I'm shouting and yelling, or I'm just cussing the race car and not really telling him what I think is wrong with it, he can't fix it. He can't fix it with information like that. So I've been working on that."
*Sound Off: Junior discusses an uphill climb
That doesn't mean Sunday was pretty. Speaking with reporters after his Q&A with fans, Earnhardt detailed how his New Hampshire effort went off-course in Friday practice, and how the mismanagement of that single session affected the team's entire weekend. "We feel like we can definitely do better than that, and we should and will," he said. "Whether we can do good enough to overcome the deficit we've put in front of us, I don't know. But we're going to work for it and see what happens."
Rebounding from adversity is often a hallmark of a championship effort. Johnson did it, in 2006 when he was crashed at Talladega and fell to eighth in points, and to a lesser degree in 2009 when he was wrecked by Sam Hornish Jr. in the third-to-last event of the season. Kurt Busch did it in 2004, rallying when a wheel fell off his race car. Tony Stewart did it last season, firing his crew chief in mid-Chase and then overcoming a piece of debris that punctured his radiator early in a race he had to win. Denny Hamlin couldn't do it in 2010, letting poor pit strategy in the penultimate event so affect him that was almost beaten by the time he showed up for the finale.
It's not going to be easy, not the whole way through, not for anybody. Hamlin may have looked invincible last weekend at New Hampshire, when he won for the third time in the past five weeks. Now he heads to Dover, one of his worst tracks, and is trading text messages with noted sports psychologist Dr. Bob Rotella to try and stay in the right frame of mind. Hamlin also was at the Hall on Tuesday, and he pulled out his iPhone to read reporters a message from Rotella: "Let your challenge for this week be to fall in love with this track," the psychologist wrote him. "From the moment you arrive, look for things to love about it and reasons to love it."
Of course, that's easier said than done. But Hamlin is another driver who once allowed adversity to stick with him too long, as his 2010 championship loss to Johnson -- and the year-long funk that followed it -- would attest. Now he's better at handling such things, partly because of his work with Rotella, and partly because of the security that came with the contract extension he signed earlier this year with Joe Gibbs Racing.
"There's so much uncertainty in our sport nowadays with like who's going to go where, and sponsors staying or going and everything," Hamlin said. "For me, it's comforting knowing that I'm in a stable situation."
Earnhardt's situation is stable, as well, but that doesn't make his challenge in the final eight races of this Chase any less daunting. The way he's dealing with problems on the race track, though, just might. Now, Earnhardt is self-aware enough to realize he probably sent the wrong message with his body language after getting out of the car Sunday. He also knows that a few years ago, difficulties like those he battled at New Hampshire might have mushroomed into something much worse.
"I have an easier time of biting my tongue than I used to," he said. "I think I hold it together during the race better. I basically try to stay calm all day Sunday and give Steve an opportunity to fix the car. I think in the past, we'd have probably had a meltdown that would be quite popular in situations like that in the past. So I think I do a better job of handling those kinds of things. But for some reason after the race, I really can't shake it off. I just get out of the car and don't say anything, and I know that's probably not the best reaction out of the choices I have. It's just real hard for me to get over it. It takes me a couple of days."
Tuesday, it seemed that Earnhardt's fans already had left it behind. In the 30-minute Q&A, they were more concerned with topics like hunting, his love for the Washington Redskins, his television commercials with Danica Patrick, and what he cooks for himself. Turns out Earnhardt is a big griller, with "racks and racks of seasonings," though he's been eating a lot of salads lately to stay in shape for the Chase -- which was one thing nobody asked about.
"I'm sure," Earnhardt said later with a smile, "they'd have gotten around to that."
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
- Denny Hamlin
- New Hampshire