Earnhardt Jr.'s 1st year with Hendrick ends on disappointing note

Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor

The Inside Line Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Even though Dale Earnhardt, Jr. made the field for the 2008 "Chase for the Sprint Cup" championship, his first year with Hendrick Motorsports did not live up to expectations.

After spending his first eight full years of NASCAR Cup competition at Dale Earnhardt Inc., Earnhardt, Jr. left the team his father started in 1996 to join the mighty organization of Hendrick as driver of the No.88 Chevrolet at the start of this season.

With a new team, car number and sponsors, the "Junior Nation" was revitalized.

Earnhardt, Jr.'s new ride also sparked a lot of hype in the pre-season.

In January, three-time Cup champion and Fox Sports analyst Darrell Waltrip predicted Earnhardt, Jr. would win six races, including the Daytona 500. Earnhardt, Jr.'s crew chief, Tony Eury, Jr., said he would be disappointed if his team didn't win at least four races this year.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. had a string of bad luck in the final 10 races, which led to a 12th-place finish in points.
Earnhardt, Jr. began the year by winning the Budweiser Shootout (pre-season, non-points race) at Daytona International Speedway and then a victory in the first Gatorade Duel at Daytona, giving him the third starting spot in the Daytona 500. He finished ninth in that race.

In June, Earnhardt, Jr. snapped a 71-race winless streak at Michigan, but it turned out to be his only points-paying victory of the year.

Two months later, he started the Chase in the fourth seed after recording 13 top-10 finishes during the 26-race "regular season."

While a consistent number of solid finishes put Earnhardt, Jr. into this year's Chase, a string of bad luck in the final 10 races led to a 12th-place finish in points.

"I'm disappointed," team owner Rick Hendrick said last week at a media luncheon at Lowe's Motor Speedway. "I felt we were so good early on, and we just had tremendous little gremlins bite us from tire problems to things you just can't control."

"I think when we look back on the year and we look back at what he's accomplished, how he's fit into our organization and how happy he and Tony (Eury Jr.) are, we're going to make it better for next year."

Earnhardt, Jr., voted NASCAR's "Most Popular Driver" the past five years, will not attend next week's awards banquet in New York City as only the top-10 finishers in the Chase are honored.

"I was super excited about the way the season was going to start," Earnhardt, Jr. said. "I couldn't wait to get to work earlier this year. It was a long year, and we worked really hard. It went good at sometimes, and it went poorly other times. 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 (Hendrick) and working with the guys I am working with."

Earnhardt, Jr. enjoyed his best Cup season with DEI in 2004 when he won six races, including the Daytona 500, and finished fifth in points.

While Earnhardt, Jr.'s teammate, Jimmie Johnson, aims for a record fourth- straight series championship, Mark Martin joins the Hendrick stables, replacing Casey Mears in the No.5 car.

With the addition of Martin, Hendrick has created a mega team with any one of his four drivers a strong possibility to win next year's title. But Hendrick thinks Martin's presence will help improve his organization. How that will effect Earnhardt, Jr. remains to be seen.

Though expectations might have been in his first year with Hendrick, Earnhardt, Jr. hopes next year he can return to his winning ways and finally capture his first Cup championship, joining his legendary father who won a record-tying seven titles.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Chris Symeon at csymeon@sportsnetwork.com.
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