Photo by Associated Press
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. is on a roll, at least by his recent standards, as he returns to Daytona International Speedway this week.
His eighth-place finish Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway moved him just three points outside the top-12 in the Sprint Cup Series standings. With one of his best tracks before him, Earnhardt could make some serious gains Saturday night and find himself in legitimate contention for a berth in the Chase for the championship.
He knew it, too, as he completed the final few laps at New Hampshire.
"I was doing the math those last 10 laps," he joked.
As Earnhardt prepares for Daytona, where he stormed through the field in the closing laps of the season-opener to nearly steal a victory in the Daytona 500, his legion of fans knows another similar drive will be a tremendous step toward rebuilding his No. 88 team.
What's less discussed is the price of his improvement.
While Earnhardt is moving closer and closer back to respectability, Hendrick Motorsports teammate Mark Martin is slipping farther and farther out of championship contention.
Martin was the lowest finisher of Hendrick's four drivers on Sunday, coming in 21st for his seventh finish outside the top-10 in the last eight races. He's 11th in the points, clinging to a spot inside the top-12.
What's shocking is that Martin and his No. 5 team couldn't have been more on it last season, when they had three victories at this point and were well on their way toward challenging teammate Jimmie Johnson for the title. Although they settled for second in the final standings, it was a banner year for NASCAR's most respected driver.
But instead of working on what the team could do to take that final step toward a title this season, Gustafson and his crew turned their attention to helping Earnhardt's No. 88 team. There was an official request from team owner Rick Hendrick to Gustafson, one of the most loyal employees he's ever had, and Gustafson, as always, obliged.
It meant the loss of his lead race engineer and a key mechanic -- both were moved to assist Earnhardt's crew chief Lance McGrew-- as well as a total reorganization of the race shop to get the No. 5 and No. 88 teams working in unison.
The idea was to strengthen both teams, and after a rough patch, Earnhardt seems headed in the right direction. He had stumbled in the standings after five straight finishes outside the top-15, and that included a demoralizing 30th-place finish at Dover.
But in the last three races, he was seventh at Michigan, 11th at Sonoma -- and considering how much he hates the road course, tying his career-best finish was a moral victory -- and finally eighth on Sunday.
Martin, meanwhile, has headed the opposite direction. He's led just one lap in the last 11 races and his fourth-place finish at Charlotte is his only top-10 in the last eight events. Gustafson blames the team's problems on his own inadequacies in dealing with NASCAR's switch in March from the wing to the spoiler.
Only everyone else wonders what role the focus on Earnhardt has played in the No. 5 team's demise.
Earnhardt admits tying the two teams together has improved his group.
"I think it helped us," he said, before quickly adding, "I know Mark is struggling compared to last year. But it helped us as a team. (Engineer) Chris Heroy come over was a big deal for me and Lance both. I think he's enjoyed being part of our group."
Gustafson, on the other hand, won't blame their struggles on linking up with the No. 88.
"If I was somebody who was not involved in this everyday, that is what I would say because that is the most obvious and makes the most sense," Gustafson said. "I think it's wrong. I do think our shop has made a net gain, even though we haven't won any races. The 88 is significantly better than what they were. So I think the team strength is a lot better.
"Are there areas where we may have slowed down a little bit? Yes. But that's not why we are where we are. And there's a bigger gain, that when we all get right, will make us even stronger. It's like cleaning up your house: Sometimes you have to mess it up to get it how you want it."
The true test of this partnership won't be at Daytona, where Martin and Earnhardt swept the front row in February and made everyone believe their strengthened relationship was working wonders. Chances are, Earnhardt is going to do just fine Saturday night and likely leave Daytona inside the top 12.
His success brings more attention to NASCAR, and that's good for everyone. Well, maybe everyone except Martin.