Unlike Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart before him, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final season in NASCAR isn’t going the way most dreamed it would.
While both Gordon and Stewart made NASCAR’s postseason, making their final year in the Cup series something to remember _ Gordon won at Martinsville two years ago and made the final four with a chance to capture his fifth Cup title and Stewart, a three-time champion, won at Sonoma last year to get a shot at the title _ Earnhardt’s season has been forgettable.
With five races remaining before the playoff field is set, Earnhardt sits 22nd in points. A victory would be poignant for both Junior Nation and NASCAR.
“We have just not run good this year at the majority of the races,” Earnhardt said Saturday at Watkins Glen International. “I don’t know that has anything to do with any individual. It is just that you have good years and you have bad years. We just didn’t draw the right cards. Just a lot of circumstances have led to the performance of our car this year that you can’t really put on one thing.”
In 21 races, Earnhardt has earned one pole, has only one top-5 and four top-10s. He's had one engine failure and four crashes, to boot, a big part of the reason he has eight finishes in the 30s.
That's a far cry from just two years ago, when he won three races and finished the season with his best average finish _ 11.3.
"I don’t know what the expectations were. I really don’t know what people would assume we are capable of," Earnhardt said. "I know what our potential is. You look at 2013, 14, 15, that is our potential. We have been progressing as a team ... all through that period. I expect us to be able to maintain that type of performance, and we haven’t been able to do it. We haven’t been able to put it together and have the speed we need in the cars.”
For a driver who once won six races in a season (2004), twice won the Daytona 500, posted six wins at Talladega and won NASCAR's All-Star Race as a rookie (2000), his farewell tour doesn't have many highlights.
It's not for lack of trying.
“I still see a very competitive and hungry guy,” said seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt’s teammate at Hendrick Motorsports. “He’s always done a very nice job in articulating his feelings and he’s certainly been open about his experiences this year. But inside the walls of Hendrick Motorsports, it’s business as usual. We’re not happy with where we are. We want to be dominating every race as a group.
“He wants to win and (crew chief) Greg (Ives) wants to win," Johnson said. "That team is preparing each and every week regardless of who was in it last year, to win. I think there’s more outside pressure and I think Dale is aware of his fan base and what’s written and what’s said maybe more than some other drivers. And there certainly has been pressure on that side."
Earnhardt struggled in Cup practice on Saturday at Watkins Glen, finishing near the bottom of the charts. He came here with high hopes after finishing sixth on the road course at Sonoma in June.
"We had a little speed earlier in the season I thought," Earnhardt said. "We got through Texas and I felt like that things are where they should be. We haven’t really developed any speed through the season as we have progressed through the year. We sort of have not found anything additional to what we had at the start of the year. A lot of teams have and we are sort of playing catch up right now.”
Earnhardt, who announced his retirement in April after missing half of last season with concussion problems, said he plans to run two Xfinity races next season, but re-affirmed that his focus remains on the task at hand.
"I’m not going to be able to tell my team anything they don’t know," he said. "They understand the reality of the situation and where we are competition-wise and points-wise. The only thing I’ve told them is one of these races we’re going to show up and we might have what we need. And for us to be able to win that weekend, we need to be ready mentally. We can’t drag our feet into the race track on Friday and expect to be on our game on Sunday. We have to go into every race like this is going to be the week that we get it done. I think that’s the only attitude you can have if you expect to take advantage of an opportunity because one might fall in your lap and we just might find what we’re looking for before the season is over."