Just when you thought Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s season of unrelenting misery and inexplicable failure could not get any worse, it did.
The sport’s most popular driver entered the weekend at Martinsville Speedway 22nd in the standings and without a top-10 since Bristol in August. A fairly good run last week in Charlotte went south when the transmission on the No. 88 gave out, relegating him to a 38th place finish. With frustration and disappointment mounting, Junior headed to a track where he had three straight top-10 finishes.
Starting from the 12th spot, Earnhardt Jr. made his way into the top-10 during the first 75 laps of the TUMS Fast Relief 500. Running with his Hendrick Motorsports teammates, things started to look up as the laps clicked away.
That optimism ended when a flat tire on lap 90 sent the 88 into the outside wall. Knocked to the back of the pack, Earnhardt Jr. went to work making up the ground he lost, but it was all for naught. He blew a second tire on lap 130. Clearly upset with his misfortune, Earnhardt Jr. radioed his crew saying, “If you got any ideas on how to not keep blowing tires, that would be good.”
Again he worked through traffic to regain the spots he had lost. Earnhardt Jr. made his way to 16th by lap 300. Just as things were starting to look up for the 88, a third blown tire struck. Adding insult to injury, NASCAR opted not to throw a caution as Junior limped his car around the track and navigated his way to pit road.
Earnhardt finished 29th, one lap down, as the string of disappointing finishes continued. Earnhardt Jr. is in the biggest slump of his 11-year career. With only four races remaining this season, Earnhardt Jr. has only two top-5s and five top-10s compared to five DNFs and 17 finishes of 25th or worse.
While this year has been a major disappointment, it does not mean Earnhardt Jr. has lost his ability as a driver. He is not the first to go through a slump. After winning back-to-back championships in 1990 and 1991, Dale Earnhardt Sr. struggled in 1992 and finished a disappointing 12th in the standings. The Intimidator came back to win the title again in 1993 and 1994.
This slump will end, but don’t expect it to happen in the next four races. The frustration and disappointment of this season may serve as a motivating factor for the No. 88 team in 2010. Team owner Rick Hendrick said everyone in the organization is committed to getting the team back on track, but when a slump hits it is hard to pretend everything is great. Unfortunately for this team the hits keep coming.