Commentary

One win and in the Chase, but is Junior -- or Junior Nation -- happy with 2008?

Dale Earnhardt Jr. won a race and made the Chase in his first season at Hendrick Motorsports. But is that enough to satisfy him or his legion of fans? No, but there are signs things may get better, writes Terry Blount.

Updated: November 2, 2008, 10:46 AM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

FORT WORTH, Texas -- A question for all you Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans out there: Is this good enough?

I'm betting that's a big, fat NO.

Earnhardt is three races away from completing his inaugural season at Hendrick Motorsports. He enters the Dickies 500 on Sunday at 10th in the standings with one victory.

Couldn't he have done that at Dale Earnhardt Inc.?

Maybe, maybe not, especially with the way things are going at DEI these days. But that's not the point.

Earnhardt didn't make the move to Hendrick to finish 10th, win once in a season and fall short of any realistic shot at the championship.

He has fewer top-5s and top-10s than teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon.

From that perspective, the glass is half empty. It isn't good enough for Earnhardt, it isn't good enough for the No. 88 Chevy crew, and it isn't good enough for the fans.

But Earnhardt is optimistic and sees the glass as half full. He says he believes the foundation is in place for bigger and better things.

"I feel pretty good about how we ran this year and how we have been able to be fast pretty much every week," Earnhardt said. "We have a little bit of knowledge about what worked this year and what didn't. We'll try to use that to our advantage, try to use what worked and make it better."

Count Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage among those who believe it will get better.

Gossage feels close to Earnhardt, as he did to Junior's father. The elder Earnhardt came to Texas when Gossage broke ground for TMS 13 years ago. Junior won his first Cup race at TMS in 2000, getting a hug in Victory Lane from his dad.

Gossage wouldn't be a bit surprised to see Junior win here Sunday. He also wouldn't be surprised to see Earnhardt win the championship in 2009.

"I think they're poised for great things next year," Gossage said. "I'm sure the Junior Nation would have loved to see him challenge for the championship this year, but this season was a huge turnaround for him.

[+] EnlargeTony Eury Jr., Dale Earnhardt Jr.
AP Photo/Glenn SmithTony Eury Jr., left, and cousin Dale Earnhardt Jr. have had a publicly volatile relationship, but Earnhardt's lone win of the season came after a gutsy call by Eury.

"It's actually been a far better season than I expected from them. When you make a change to a new organization, it takes a while to get your feet under you."

Earnhardt ranked in the top five in the standings for 23 consecutive races, including four consecutive events in second place during the summer months.

He won at Michigan when crew chief Tony Eury Jr. made a brilliant call on fuel. But earning his only 2008 victory on fuel mileage also brought criticism from the doubters.

Eury has plenty of doubters. The big question going forward for Earnhardt is whether he can reach his goals at Hendrick with Eury at the helm of the 88 team. Team owner Rick Hendrick will have the final say on that one, but Gossage said he thinks people should give it time.

"We all hear the stories about their volatile relationship," Gossage said. "But I wouldn't do anything to change it yet. If it doesn't happen after next year, maybe Rick takes a hard look at it and swaps some people around or puts a young guy in there that he believes can become another Chad Knaus. But I don't think they've reached that point."

Hendrick doesn't see any reason to make changes.

"I'm really tickled with what we have done this year," Hendrick said. "We're figuring out what [Earnhardt] needs. We should have won two or three races, and we got one. We're going to keep getting better."

Earnhardt could have won several races this year. He had a car capable of taking the checkered flag. So why didn't he?

Too many times this season Earnhardt's car wasn't as good at the end of a race as it was at the start. It has caused Earnhardt to lose his cool occasionally and lash out at Eury.

Totally overblown. Drivers get angry with crew chiefs all the time, but everything that happens with Earnhardt is magnified.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

I want to try to prove to myself that I belong here. I want to get finishes that we deserve. I feel like we should run in the top five every week. We just have to build on what we have and try to be faster and smarter.

-- Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Earnhardt accomplished his first goal for his new team, which was making the Chase. He entered the playoff in fourth with a good chance of contending for the title. That alone is a dramatic improvement over his final year at DEI.

A strong run in the Chase could have relieved some fears and left everyone optimistic about 2009. Didn't happen.

Earnhardt has two top-10s (fifth at New Hampshire and second at Martinsville) in seven playoff events. He has finished 24th or worse three times, which is a little misleading on how he ran.

Earnhardt had a strong car at Talladega, but was a victim near the end in the wreck caused by Carl Edwards.

Maybe Junior's luck will change in the last three races so he can end the season on a high note.

"I can have a little momentum going into the next year," Earnhardt said. "I'm real confident in our ability to go out next season and make a better showing."

Earnhardt needs only to look to Jeff Burton to see how things can change in the second year with a team. Burton finished 18th his first full season at Richard Childress Racing in 2005. He has made the Chase the past three years and was in title contention the past two seasons.

Burton is 41. Earnhardt is 34 and still has plenty of time to get to where he wants to go as a racer.

Earnhardt is more than the son of a NASCAR legend, but he still fights that unfair perception that he is not.

"I want to try to prove to myself that I belong here," Earnhardt said. "I want to get finishes that we deserve. I feel like we should run in the top five every week. We just have to build on what we have and try to be faster and smarter."

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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