Commentary

Hendrick: Chase gremlins got the best of Earnhardt

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was poised to make a run at the Cup title when the Chase started. Then NASCAR's most popular driver faded into oblivion, writes David Newton.

Updated: November 18, 2008, 7:27 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

CONCORD, N.C. -- Rick Hendrick got on his radio prior to the first of the Sprint Cup's 10-race playoff and told Dale Earnhardt Jr. he had what it took to be holding the championship trophy after the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

One of Hendrick's drivers indeed held the trophy on Sunday in South Florida, but it was Jimmie Johnson.
[+] EnlargeDale Earnhardt Jr.
AP Photo/Jason BabyakIt was that kind of season for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who started the Chase in fourth place but finished it in 12th.

Earnhardt? He finished last among the 12 drivers, meaning he won't make the trip to New York City for the season-ending banquet reserved for the top 10.

"I'm disappointed," Hendrick said on Tuesday at Lowe's Motor Speedway. "I felt like we were so good early on. We just had tremendous little gremlins bite us, from tire problems to things you just can't control.

"All of those things that happened to him could have happened to Jimmie Johnson. He could be fifth in the points and Jimmie could be third in the points."

Earnhardt had eight top-5s and 12 top-10s during the first 26 races and entered the Chase fourth in points. He had only two top-5s and three top-10s in the final 10, finishing a whopping 557 points behind Johnson.

The consistency Earnhardt had early in the season was nowhere to be found in the Chase. NASCAR's most popular driver finished worse than 15th only twice in the first 15 races. He was 20th or worse in five of the final nine races, and he finished on the lead lap only four times in the final 10 races, failing to finish at Talladega (crash) and Homestead (wheel bearing).

"Racing luck has got a lot to do with it," Hendrick said. "When we look back at the year and at what he's accomplished and how he's fit into our organization and how happy he is and Tony [Eury Jr.] is, we're going to go to work to make it better for next year.

"That's the good news -- there is next year."

Hendrick already is busy trying to make next year better. He took a brief break from meetings on Tuesday to attend the rookie of the year luncheon at LMS in which Landon Cassill took home the Nationwide Series Award.

Then it was back to meet Mark Martin, who will take over the No. 5 car in 2009 and share the same shop with Earnhardt.

"Mark Martin being there is going to help us, help us a lot," Hendrick said of the 49-year-old driver who has finished second in the championship standings four times. "Mark is a great example of dedication and determination. His enthusiasm gets me excited."

Earnhardt was excited about his chances of winning the title his dad won seven times.

"I was super excited about the way the season was going," he said prior to Sunday's 41st-place finish. "I couldn't wait to get to work earlier this year. It was a long year, we worked really hard. It went good sometimes, sometimes it went poorly. For the most part I was real proud of just getting the season in the bank and getting done and looking forward to next year.

"I am really happy to be with Rick and working with the guys I am working with."

Expectations may have been too high for the driver who arguably has higher expectations than anybody in the garage.

"There's no way you can put a team together in their first year and they be as good as [Johnson's] team because they've been together," Hendrick said. "That's the chemistry that is going to get better on Dale Jr.'s side.

"Hopefully, Junior might get his first championship next year. Who knows?"

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

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