Junior's fresh start

Jonathan Baum

HAMPTON, Ga. – Maybe it is fitting it is ending this way.

Maybe Dale Earnhardt Jr., here at Atlanta, was supposed to wreck in spectacular fashion – and, of course, escape unhurt – while gunning for a win.

Maybe this Sunday was supposed to be representative of so many others for him this season: a great run, a comeback effort and a shot at a win all ruined by circumstance.

Often, it has been engines. Sometimes, it has been wrecks.

This time, Junior's pedal-to-the-metal driving – which makes for good highlights but can get him in trouble, as it nearly did on a couple of occasions Sunday – helped him come back in this race after falling a lap down.

The problem was this: Just laps from a possible victory – or at least a strong finish – Junior, running third at the time, literally drove the wheels off his car.

It was a devastating and unfair ending to a wild and impressive day.

The same can be said for the waning moments of his tenure with Dale Earnhardt Inc. It's one that has been filled with promise, wins and spectacular moments but also with some level of disappointment and regret due to the absence of a championship.

Junior said after the race that the loose wheel issue was recurring, but when there wasn't a problem, "we were fast as hell."

He also could be talking about this entire season.

While ruining his own day, Junior's wreck helped Jimmie Johnson win Sunday's race. You know Johnson, the reigning series champion, the guy in the thick of the title chase.

Where Junior wants to be.

Afterward, far away from victory lane where Johnson celebrated, the No. 8 team lingered in the garage. One crew member could be heard sniping at another with words that can't be repeated here. It was all in frustration, and it's understandable. It's human.

And just about the same moment Junior's guys, who rolled out a great car and executed a great race, watched and waited as what remained of their mangled Chevrolet got towed back to its garage in front of gawking fans and photographers, Jeff Gordon began his postrace press conference. The points leader and four-time champion, thanks to some luck, finished far higher than he should have.

"I know how many Junior fans there are, and they should be really anxious about him getting behind the wheel of a Hendrick Motorsports car next year," Gordon said.

Sure, there are three more races for Junior to run in his famous red No. 8 Chevy. And there are a couple of tracks remaining where he has won before and could win again.

But Junior's Hendrick era actually begins long before Daytona opens its doors early next year for the 2008 Sprint Cup season.

Right here at Atlanta on Monday, the Car of Tomorrow will be tested as it is prepared to finally be rolled out on these 1½-mile tracks next season. And Dale Earnhardt Jr., for the first time, will be driving his future Hendrick ride – his relief stint of Kyle Busch earlier this season notwithstanding.

"It's going to be an important day. … We're glad to see it, to get started," team owner Rick Hendrick said. "(Crew chief) Tony Eury Jr.'s been here, been working with the guys. He's had some ideas. They have a lot of things to test … (Monday) is a day we've been waiting for. We're excited."

Hendrick seems more interested in team communication, gathering data and sharing information – both with Junior and Tony Eury Jr. and also with the upcoming No. 25 pairing of Casey Mears and crew chief Alan Gufstafson.

But it's more than technical. It's more than a chance for Earnhardt, Eury and Co. to shake down some new equipment.

It's a chance for a fresh start.

Just hours after spinning and smashing, after having to leave an erstwhile stout race car behind in a heap and make his way to the infield care center, Junior will get strapped into a Hendrick Car of Tomorrow, which this year usually has been the class of the field.

Junior can leave, for a moment, his past behind and get a glimpse of his future. And with the way Sunday's race ended – with Junior wrecking hard and finishing 25th – that glimpse perhaps couldn't have come soon enough.

This isn't to disparage DEI. This isn't about minimalizing that team's efforts. Short of something quirky going on in the engine department, these guys have given Junior strong cars all season, as the team also has done for Martin Truex Jr. (whose great day here at Atlanta, incidentally, also ended in frustration).

These DEI guys twice have put Junior in the Chase. They have competed for championships.

They just don't get the breaks.

Call it luck, call it talent or, for the Hendrick haters, call it the work of some dark power, but the Hendrick organization – especially those two guys battling for the championship – has been getting nearly all the breaks over the last year or two.

And that – plus talent and resources – has led to wins and championships.

After the race, Gordon was asked about those vocal Hendrick haters, about whether they should just give up and accept the team's dominance. Whether they should adopt the "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" philosophy.

Gordon knows who many of those Hendrick haters have been.

"They are (coming)," he said. "They're going to be joining us next year with Junior."

It's a tough pill for some of Junior Nation to swallow. But a year from now, if it's Mark Martin's No. 8 failing to finish here while Junior, the Hendrick Motorsports driver, is finding a way to win or surviving for a solid finish while battling a teammate or two for the Cup championship, maybe it all will taste a little better.

And Junior still will be driving the wheels off his car, only this time it will be figurative.

"All I know is I have a headache and I'm going to my bus to rest up," Junior said after Sunday's race.

Chances are, he'll feel a bit better on Monday.

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