The time is now for Earnhardt Jr.

by Monte Dutton

Nine races may seem like an eternity for some, but time is growing short if Dale Earnhardt Jr., the most popular driver in NASCAR, is to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup. With the aforementioned nine by Monte Dutton races remaining in the regular season, Earnhardt trails 12th-place Juan Montoya by 285 points. He trails point leader Tony Stewart by 760, but Stewart’s point total (2,524) is almost irrelevant to Earnhardt’s situation. Earnhardt, 34, finished 13th at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, improving his point position from 20th to 19th but losing eight points in the span between him and 12th place. The crew-chief change at Hendrick Motorsports — Lance McGrew has replaced Tony Eury Jr. with Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevy — has thus far yielded no notable results. It may take time, but now it’s time Earnhardt doesn’t have. He said he’s doing the best he can, hoping a few breaks and improved performance can fuel a comeback. “You show up every week thinking you can win and hoping you can win,” he said recently. Earnhardt’s troubles are a mystery. He is a two-time champion of what is now the Nationwide Series. He won two or more races in each of his first five seasons, winning six in 2004 alone and finishing third in the 2003 point standings. After winning once in 2005 and 2006 and going winless in ‘´07, Earnhardt moved from the family team, then known as Dale Earnhardt Inc., and replaced Kyle Busch at Hendrick Motorsports in 2008. He won once and made the Chase but finished last (12th). Earnhardt’s fortunes have sagged noticeably since the advent of generic cars, which were fully implemented in 2008. “We’re leaning on our teammates a lot, and if they can run fast with such-and-such setup, I should be able to make it work, and I need to learn how to drive it if it feels different,” said Earnhardt. “I’m really open minded and trying to adjust whatever I need to adjust to adapt, and it will work or it won’t work, but giving it your best effort is the best way to go. “People say oftentimes the best thing to do is always the hardest thing to do. We’re just putting our foot down and trying to work hard.” Monte Dutton has covered motorsports for The Gaston (NC) Gazette since 1993. He was named writer of the year by the National Motorsports Press Association in 2008. His blog NASCAR This Week ( features all of his reporting on racing, roots music and life on the road. E-mail Monte at nascar_ Copyright 2009 King Features Syndicate

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s fortunes with new team Hendrick Motorsports have not yet yielded any results, and his chances to make the Chase this season are dwindling fast. (photo by John Clark/NASCAR This Week)