Junior not giving up on Sonoma or season
And this Sunday at Sonoma, Calif., he'll be trying to break out of that slump at a road course, which isn't exactly his favorite type of track even during a good season.
Junior's struggles this season have been well-documented. His brief ascension back into contention was lauded, and popular speculation was that the man who finished the past two seasons third and fifth overall was back in title contention.
But since its last top-10 finish, the embattled No. 8 team has replaced its crew chief and restarted the renewal efforts begun during the offseason when the two-car Dale Earnhardt Inc. stable swapped crews. The first rebuilding effort had Junior 17th in the standings five races into the year, but then he climbed upward to peak at ninth after the Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway.
"I expected it to be kind of tough for several reasons," Junior said. "And, you know, it has been a struggle at times. But we've just fortunately, you know, we're able to keep positive."
Since Steve Hmiel moved over as Junior's new crew chief, though, the growing pains have started all over; 15 races into the season, Junior is back to 17th and hoping he can once more begin a steady climb back into the top 10 before the playoff field is frozen after Race No. 26.
"Things don't happen overnight," Junior said. "Wish they did. We would have loved to have had success, but we knew it was going to take a little bit of time, so we're just being patient."
And although patience persists, time is quickly running out for drivers to position themselves for the Chase for the Nextel Cup. Junior has 11 races between now and the cutoff, and the first track up is a road course where Junior's average finish is 18.9 in five years of Cup racing.
Still, the 30-year-old driver hasn't lost hope.
"We've come a long way on the road courses," he said. "I used to dread certain tracks, and the road courses were on that list. But I've improved a lot as a road racer, and now I really like going to those places. I've won Cup races on every kind of track except a road course, so it's like the one last piece I need to fill in to complete the package."
He has had extensive help in trying to fill in that last piece of the puzzle. Road-race specialists Boris Said, Ron Fellows and Andy Pilgrim have all tutored Junior, who grew up racing dirt tracks and small ovals in North Carolina.
"Those guys helped me a lot over the last four or five years with my road-racing skills," Junior said. "The more I talked to them, the better I got. It really helped my confidence."
Still, Junior isn't ready to say the student has reached the skill level of the teachers quite yet. In that blunt tone we've come to expect from Junior, he put it simply: "Hell no."
"I'm amazed at how road-course drivers [do it]," he continued. "You know, the real good ones like Boris and Ron work the brakes and the throttle at the same time through the turns. I mean, I do it to an extent, as I'm sure everyone else does. But at the end of the day, I'm still an old-school driver where the gas means go and the brake means stop. Those guys are wickedly good at using every bit of the car to make it fast. I bet if you were to put a camera in Boris' floorboard, it'd be like watching the Riverdance."
Said believes Junior has improved vastly since they first started to talk road racing. In fact, the road racer says he believes Junior has come along faster on the road courses than Said has on the ovals.
"It's more about managing the weight," Said explained about NASCAR racers getting used to the road courses. "[The stock cars] are so heavy. They have so much horsepower. So you're managing the weight and trying to get the thing to turn and change direction. And then you have to get the power down because it's easy to spin the tires."
Junior has started to get the hang of it, and it's reflected in his finishes. After failing to finish among the top 10 in his first six tries on road courses (and thrice finishing 30th or worse in that time), Junior has finished 11th, third, 11th and fifth in his last four road events.
This weekend, he's hoping for another solid finish -- and maybe even that elusive road-course checkered flag. The fact the team is still trying to jell and the crew is trying to make the cars competitive doesn't deter Junior.
He believes he can win Sunday in Sonoma, Calif., just as he believes he will contend for a title before the season's story has been fully written.
"We'd like to be closer to the top 10, but we're certainly within striking distance," he said. "There's a long way to go before the Chase begins."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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