NASCAR notebook: Dale Earnhardt Jr. could save his season at Michigan

  • From left: NHMS VP/GM David McGrath, President of the North East Motor Sports Museum Dick Berggren, New England NASCAR legend Ricky Craven and nine-time NHMS race winner Eddie MacDonald stand in the North East Motor Sports Museum in Loudon. The Museum opened to the public on Monday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Dale Earnhardt Jr. in action during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Pocono 400 race on Sunday in Long Pond, Pa. Earnhardt Jr. blew out the engine on his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy on lap 57. AP

Published: 6/13/2017 12:41:54 AM

Dale Earnhardt Junior’s final lap around the nation as a full-time Cup series driver isn’t going as well as he, or his army of devoted fans, had hoped.

Earnhardt, 42, will retire at the end of the season, but NASCAR’s most popular driver would like to get the No. 88 back to Victory Lane before he takes his foot off the pedal for good.

He hasn’t touched a checkered flag in the Cup series since 2015 at Phoenix. Things somehow became more sour on Sunday at Pocono Raceway when Earnhardt made a mistake uncharacteristic of a grizzled, 18-year Cup veteran. He blew the engine of his Hendrick Motorsports Chevy shortly after the green flag came down on Stage 2 while trying to shift to fourth gear. Instead, he hit second and blew the motor on lap 57.

Earnhardt made the same mistake two days prior during practice and had to start Sunday’s race from the back of the field.

Junior Nation is getting anxious and Junior himself wants to put them at ease. Earnhardt, a savvy user of social media, took to Twitter after the race.

“Don't worry bout me, I can deal with the lowest of lows,” he wrote. “I only worry about my team. They deserve success and happiness. My belief is they will get what they deserved before the season’s end. I can't wait to be a part of that.”

Earnhardt needs to win one of the next 12 races if he hopes to compete for a championship in his final season. Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart electrified the final races of their careers by making the playoffs before retiring in 2015 and ’16, respectively. Pocono seemed like the right place for Earnhardt to earn his ticket.

Historically, Pocono has been good to Earnhardt, who has taken nine top-10 finishes and two wins in his last 11 appearances at the Tricky Triangle. He finished as the runner-up to Kurt Busch there last June. Instead, Sunday turned out to be his second DNF in 34 races at Pocono.

“I wish I could blame it on something else because it’s awful, it feels awful,” Earnhardt told FS1 during the broadcast Sunday. “It’s just my fault. I wish I could say that the shifter is different and something’s out of line. This really concerns me. ... I don’t really have an answer other than me having to pay more attention.”

Through 14 races this year, Earnhardt has made the top-10 twice at Texas and Charlotte. He’s ranked 23rd in the Cup standings, 355 points behind the leader Martin Truex Jr. Earnhardt will look to turn his luck around at Michigan this weekend. He previously won there in 2008 and 2012 and finished second in June 2015.

Craven was ‘stung’ by news

Retired racer turned ESPN analyst Ricky Craven, a son of New England, was in town last week for the opening of the North East Motor Sports Museum in Loudon, a project he’s been involved in since plans were first announced in 2011.

Craven, an 11-year veteran of the Cup series with 275 races from 1991 to 2004, spared a few minutes to share his thoughts on a few different topics surrounding NASCAR, the state of racing in New England, and his reaction to NHMS losing its fall race starting in 2018.

On NASCAR’s annual visit to New Hampshire being cut to one race, Craven was obviously disappointed.

“It stung,” Craven said. “It’s the same discussion you can have about an adversity in any business. It’s about evolution. Things change and evolve. And as difficult of a pill as it is to swallow for New England people you can’t close your mind to the idea that you wouldn’t have a second race date down the road. That’s pretty much the way I’ve looked at everything my whole adult life. You gotta find the optimism and the reason to be optimistic.”

It’s easy to guess what would need to happen for NHMS to regain a playoff race in the fall: increased attendance and revenue for Speedway Motorsports, Inc., the company that owns NHMS in Loudon and Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“The catalyst would have to be the demand,” Craven said. “They wouldn’t have moved the race date to Las Vegas if they didn’t think it would reward them financially. That’s not front-and-center for a race fan in New England, but it’s front-and-center for a business. A second race would come back here if it made economical sense. I mean, it’s the Boston market, it’s the primary reason we got a race to begin with. New Hampshire doesn’t compete with anybody in terms of the Boston market.”

New attractions

The North East Motor Sports Museum opened its doors to the public on Monday in Loudon less than a mile south of the main entrance to New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

News outlets were given an early look at the building and its collection last week. David McGrath, vice president and general manager of the speedway, told the Monitor this is the first of many year-round attractions he hopes to see rise around the property’s 1,200 acres.

As for other possible attractions?

“Casinos keep getting mentioned in the state,” McGrath said. “If that ever came to fruition and become law, we certainly would be interested there as well.”

Bubba’s his own critic

Maybe Darrell Wallace Jr. wasn’t expecting to win at Pocono in his Cup series debut, but he wanted a better result than the 26th-place finish he turned in. And before he could share his thoughts with reporters, Wallace – widely known by his nickname ‘Bubba’ – fell ill and nearly fainted while leaning against his car on a hot day in Monroe County, Pa.

When Wallace finally made it to the media center, he dispelled his frustrations with multiple speeding penalties on pit road and other mistakes.

“I’m just so bummed out and frustrated with myself,” Wallace said. “I know my family is going to be hard on me after this not to be so hard on myself, but I’m competitive and I want to win races and I want to lead laps.”

Whoa there, Bubba. His competitive edge is admirable, but the first Cup race comes with a learning curve. There are plenty more ahead for the 23-year-old Richard Petty Motorsports driver, who became the first African-American to race in the Cup series since Bill Lester in 2006.

“This was a wonderful day for me, a wonderful day for the sport,” he said. “I wish we could have got a little bit better finish in our Smithfield Ford, but I’m just thankful for the opportunity. I’ve been dreaming about this since I was a little kid, being in the Cup series, and now it’s here, and I made a name for myself.”

Bubba will be back behind the wheel of the No. 43 Smithfield Ford at Michigan on Sunday.

(Nick Stoico can be reached at 369-3339, or on Twitter @NickStoico.)

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