BROOKLYN, Mich. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. is perplexed, frustrated and still feeling confident.
NASCAR’s most popular driver knows his No. 8 Chevrolet team is good enough to compete for a Nextel Cup championship, so why is it 14th in the points and in danger of missing the Chase for the championship for the second time in three years?
“The last few months, I can’t believe how bad our luck has been because we’ve run up front every week,” Earnhardt said.
“It feels like we’re like your favorite CD, but with a scratch in it. It feels good and sounds great until we hit the scratch, and then the song stops before it’s done. If we ever get that disc to play through to the end, we’ll be pretty darn happy.”
Coming off an engine failure, his fourth this year, and a 42nd-place finish last week at Watkins Glen, Earnhardt heads into Sunday’s 3M Performance 400 at Michigan International Speedway with finishes of 19th or worse in four of his last five starts.
The only bright spot during that stretch was a runner-up finish two weeks ago at Pocono that at least kept him in the battle for a postseason spot.
With just four races remaining before the start of the 10-race Chase, Earnhardt’s team is 100 points behind Kurt Busch in 12th place and in desperate need of a win — or at least a top-10 finish.
“I’m sure some people are going to write us off for the Chase after our problems at Watkins Glen,” Earnhardt said. “But I think it’s foolish to do so because we’re a great team and we’re going to do everything we can to scratch and claw and fight for wins and every position on every lap.
“We have races coming up at four tracks where we’ve been very, very good lately,” he said. “No one has been better or more consistent at Michigan than we have the last few years.”
In the past three Cup races on the two-mile MIS oval, since June 2006, Earnhardt has a series-leading average finish of 4.6. That includes finishes of third and sixth last year and fifth in this year’s June race.
“We’re taking our favorite car that we’ve been using there and it just seems to really get up and go at Michigan,” Earnhardt said. “(Crew chief) Tony (Eury) Jr. and the boys have been working on it and updating it just for this race. I can’t wait.”
But Earnhardt and the rest of the Chevrolet drivers face a difficult task at a track where the last GM victory was by Jeff Gordon in August 2001.
Fords or Dodges have won 13 of the last 14 races here, including a Ford win by Roush Fenway Racing driver Carl Edwards in June, and dominated the top-10, an anomaly since Chevrolets have been generally the cars to beat at most other tracks during that period.
“I feel like we’ve been a little bit behind (on) horsepower over the past,” Gordon said. “You look, a lot of Yates cars have won here, and those guys make some serious power.
“Now you’ve got the Yates-Roush (engine) package and they won here (in June). Other than that, I think we’ve been in position to win some races here and it just hasn’t worked out.”
Pat Suhy, GM Racing NASCAR program manager, had another reason for the Chevy problems at Michigan and its sister track, California Speedway, another two-mile oval where GM has won just three times in the last 11 races.
“If you look at it, our teams tend to dominate at the mile and a half tracks and the short tracks,” Suhy explained. “If you think about the number of races, California and Michigan are 11 percent of the races in a year. So I’d much rather be good at the 50 or 60 percent or so races on the mile and a half tracks.
“And, with the (NASCAR) testing policy being what it is now, they can’t test here, either. I would venture to guess if you look back historically you’d see the Roush guys testing here more, which helps you here and California. Maybe the Dodge guys, too. When we could go and test at will, we just never emphasized it nearly as much as we did Indianapolis, Daytona, Talladega and a good solid mile and a half program.”
But Earnhardt has had enough success here to hope for more.
“There are times when you just need a good race, and this is one of them,” he said. “Time is running out.”