By Dan Beaver
The Sports Xchange
There is an old saying that races are won and lost in the pits.
The No. 88 team is doing its best to modify that saying to become simply, "Races are lost in the pits."
With criticism already at an all-time high about the dysfunctional communication between driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Tony Eury Jr., Sunday's Samsung 500 at Texas Motor Speedway was yet another comedy of errors in both the pits and on the track. And that is an all too familiar pattern this season.
After fumbling another pit stop this week and later slapping the wall, Earnhardt finished one lap off the pace in 20th place and remains 16th in the standings -- 67 points outside the coveted top 12. Meanwhile, teammate Jeff Gordon beat second-place Jimmie Johnson to the line, and the fourth Hendrick Motorsports driver, Mark Martin, finished sixth.
In his second full season with Hendrick Motorsports -- and after a lifetime of working and living with his cousin Eury -- Earnhardt and his No. 88 Chevrolet should be running like a well-oiled machine. Instead, they are running like a machine that has a serious oil leak.
About one-fourth of the way through the season-opening Daytona 500, Earnhardt accidentally drove past his pit stall when everyone else stopped for service. Forced to pit again, he started at the tail end of the lead lap and was lucky to avoid catastrophe in heavy traffic.
But he and the team were not done making mistakes. Later in that same race, he was penalized for pitting outside his pit box. When the team did not heed NASCAR's warning to stop working on the car, he was penalized a lap.
Desperate to get back on the lead lap, he ran into the back of Brian Vickers, who also was one lap down and was blocking Earnhardt to maintain his position, on the ensuing restart and turned him sideways in front of the entire field. That triggered a multi-car crash that ended the hopes of nine drivers, including his own teammate Johnson.
Two weeks later at Las Vegas, Earnhardt was penalized for entering pit road too fast, dropping him nearly two laps down, something that is nearly impossible to make up even if a race is 500 miles long.
Sunday, the ongoing comedy of errors of Earnhardt and his team just got funnier -- or sadder, if you're a suffering member of the Earnhardt Nation.
With a little more than 100 laps to go, Earnhardt entered the pits in 14th place, expecting a quick stop. Instead, the front-tire changer inadvertently left a lug nut off the left-front wheel. NASCAR ordered Earnhardt to circle around the 1.5-mile TMS track and return to fix the problem.
As Earnhardt came back onto pit road, his team let the pit board -- which helps him see where to stop -- drag on the ground. The result: Earnhardt missed his stall, bringing about a third go-round, placing him at the tail end of the lead lap.
As embarrassing as it was, Earnhardt tried to downplay the incident afterward.
"That wasn't nothing," he said. "We were already last in line on the lead lap. We came down pit road and all the lapped cars were in their stalls, and we didn't want to get t-boned by one of them. I didn't get it in the stall, so we just went around and came back in. That time pit road was empty."
As Daytona and Las Vegas already showed, the problem is pandemic. Missing the pits this one time might not have cost them track position, but the pattern of mistakes is difficult to overcome.
Two cautions later, the pit crew redeemed itself by taking two tires only, and that got Earnhardt out in the lead for just the second time this season (he came into the race having led just one lap in the first six races).
But even that was the wrong move.
When the race restarted on lap 259, Kyle Busch, who was one lap down at that point, dove into the center of a three-wide snarl. He got loose, chased his car up the track and forced Earnhardt to jam on the brakes and get out of the groove, out of the lead and promptly back to seventh place, from where things would only get worse than they had been all day.
Thirty laps later, flirting with the high line and battling Greg Biffle, Earnhardt's car slapped the wall, once again forcing him into the pits and effectively ending any chance of a comeback.
"Nothing was really wrong with the car after we hit the wall," Earnhardt said. "It was frustrating at the time, but I was running real, real hard all day. Trying to run hard and run well, we just got into the wall."
Next week is an off week for NASCAR, and Earnhardt's plans are typical of the young driver. "I'm going to raise a little hell," he said, "and I'm going to go to Whiskey River (the popular nightclub he owns in downtown Charlotte, N.C.) and I'm going to go on vacation during Easter and take it easy, man."
Perhaps a better idea would be for the team to work on its pit stops while Earnhardt works on his driving, don't you think?