By Jerry Bonkowski
How is it that Mark Martin can win his first race since 2005, yet Dale Earnhardt Jr. continues to be stuck in a tunnel that seems to have no light at the end of it?
That was pretty much the story in Saturday night's Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway: Martin won from the pole, lead the most laps (157, more than half of the race's 312 circuits around the flat one-mile oval) and broke a 97-race winless streak.
Earnhardt, meanwhile, led the second-highest number of laps (63), yet was once again victimized by misfortune: a bad set of tires, followed by being punted into the wall late in the race.
End result for the driver of the No. 88 Chevy – and Martin's teammate: a very disappointing 31st-place finish. Earnhardt has now finished 20th or worse in half of the season's first eight races.
And while Martin jubilantly breaks his winless streak, Earnhardt's streak of frustration now extends to just one win in his last 106 starts.
Oh yes, one more thing: Saturday night's win helps Martin, who earlier this season was as far back as 34th in the standings, jump up from 18th to 13th in the rankings heading into next week's race at Talladega, just nine points behind 12th-ranked and former Roush Racing teammate and prodigy Matt Kenseth.
Earnhardt, meanwhile, falls from 16th to 19th and is starting to reach a point where his chances of making the Chase for the Sprint Cup are becoming more and more questionable.
Earnhardt is now a massive 399 points behind teammate and series leader Jeff Gordon. Even guys like David Reutimann (9th), Kasey Kahne (10th), Ryan Newman (17th) and even Juan Pablo Montoya (15th) are ranked ahead of Earnhardt in the standings after the first eight races.
It's getting to the point where a major shake-up of Earnhardt's team, which more and more fans have been calling for as he continues to fade further down in the standings, may be closing in on the horizon, faster than we might think. What may have seemed unthinkable at the beginning of the season may now have reached a point where it's inevitable.
Even though he's done a great job under some very trying circumstances, will crew chief Tony Eury Jr., ultimately become the fall guy and be relieved of his duties – even though Dale Jr.'s struggles really haven't been of Eury's doing?
Or, might team owner Rick Hendrick give Eury a few weeks off and try someone else at the helm to see if it might change things?
Or, will Hendrick do what he's done several times in the past when one or more of his teams have struggled: shift several personnel from another team to the team that needs the most help (in this case, Earnhardt's)?
But with four-time Cup champ Gordon in the points lead, three-time defending Cup champ Jimmie Johnson now in second place and Martin knocking on the door of the top-12, where would Hendrick move folks from?
Had this been earlier in the year, when Martin was in danger of falling out of the top-35, a case maybe could have been made to switch crew chief Alan Gustafson with Eury, even if for just a few races, to see if the change might make a difference for both teams.
But now, with the driver Hendrick pursued for nearly two years – to convince him to return to full-time racing for one last try at the championship that has eluded him throughout his Cup career – on the verge of becoming a bonafide Chase contender, Hendrick's hands suddenly seem very tied.
He can let Earnhardt and Eury muster on and hope their horrendous run of bad luck and bad breaks turns around eventually.
But by the time that would come – and some are starting to have doubts that it will come any time soon – it may be far too late to salvage 2009, making two straight disappointing season finishes with an organization that was supposed to revitalize Junior's career and make him a champion.
Junior left Dale Earnhardt Inc., after the 2007 season, convinced that Hendrick Motorsports would give him everything he needed to become a consistent winner and eventual Cup champion.
But the way things have gone in his 44-race tenure with HMS up to now, Junior's best days may not necessarily still be ahead of him.
Rather, how long will it be before many of his diehard fans start thinking that perhaps the best days of his career may have already passed during his time at DEI.
If I've said it once, I've said it a million times: contrary to what many of his fans think, I don’t hate Junior. I really do want to see him succeed. In fact, I'm shaking my head from side to side as I write this, virtually incredulous at how much bad luck Earnhardt and his team have endured this year.
But even I've hopped on the Earnhardt bandwagon, essentially calling for ANYTHING that can help pull him out of the dive that he's currently in.
Sure, much of that misfortune has come from within: Earnhardt's bonehead move in the season-opening Daytona 500 that took out several race leaders, speeding onto or off pit road, and how he's missed his pit stall at least twice this season – not to mention pitting outside of it – for starters.
There's also been several pit crew errors, as well, including dropped lug nuts, and poor pit calls that have turned his car from a finely tuned machine into a vehicle that drove like a tank that can't turn.
Frankly, I'm getting tired of criticizing Earnhardt and his team for its mistakes and shortcomings. I'm actually feeling very sorry for them, because they can't catch a break.
Saturday night was just another example. He leads the second-highest number of laps in the race, looks like he might actually win at a place that he historically has done very well at (and won twice at previously), and yet ends up with another exasperating finish.
I've REALLY tried not to say it up to this point, but I can't ignore it anymore:
With the way Saturday's 50-year-old race winner has bounced back from his early season struggles, I have to wonder if even venerable, old-school Mark Martin, who has gone nearly 30 years without winning a Cup crown, may wind up winning a Cup championship before Junior does – if he ever does.