- Associated Press - Monday, August 16, 2010

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - With a nondescript 19th-place finish at Michigan International Speedway, Dale Earnhardt Jr. all but ensured he’ll miss the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship for the third time in four years.

That wasn’t supposed to happen. Not with all the resources Hendrick Motorsports poured into rebuilding Earnhardt’s team in an effort to turn NASCAR’s most popular driver if not into a champion, then at least a winner again.

Yet Earnhardt and his No. 88 team have fallen short again, and with three races left to set the Chase field, he’s 129 points out of the 12th and final qualifying spot.

He was short with reporters following Sunday’s race, in which he struggled most of the afternoon and was in no mood to discuss his Chase chances after his fifth consecutive finish outside the top 15.

“I just want to go home,” he said. “It wasn’t good. We were junk all day. We weren’t good. We worked hard.”

Nobody questions whether or not Earnhardt works hard. In fact, those around him insist the driver has never put forth a greater effort to turn around his fortunes and fulfill the expectations that come with being the son of one of NASCAR’s greatest racers.

All the pieces were supposed to finally be in place when he teamed with Rick Hendrick in 2008, positioning himself with NASCAR’s top team because, in his own words at his 2007 hiring announcement, “I think that I’ll have a good opportunity to succeed and win a lot of races. Personally, I think I will cherish a championship on my mantle when it’s all said and done.”

Only the reality is that Earnhardt has just one victory in 95 races with HMS. He made the Chase just once, in 2008, when he spent most of the season ranked third in points but finished 12th in the final standings.

Last season was the worst of his Cup career, and Hendrick had to fire Earnhardt’s longtime crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., in an effort to salvage the season. It didn’t really work as Earnhardt notched only five top-10 finishes and a career-worst 25th-place finish in the standings at the same time teammates Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon led a 1-2-3 sweep of the points.

So Hendrick made an organizational commitment to Earnhardt. He spent the offseason tightly pairing Earnhardt’s team with Martin’s team and gave new Earnhardt crew chief Lance McGrew key personnel members from Martin’s team.

The focus on the No. 88 team has clearly hurt Martin’s bunch: A five-race winner and championship contender last season, he’s yet to make it to Victory Lane this year and finds himself trailing Clint Bowyer by 35 points for the final Chase berth.

Clearly, Hendrick’s efforts haven’t worked, for Earnhardt or Martin, as Martin’s team has taken a step back and any improvement shown by Earnhardt is certainly not at the expected levels.

So now it’s time to try something else.

Hendrick last week solved one of his pressing matters by stashing Kasey Kahne at Red Bull Racing for next season as he waits to replace Martin in the No. 5 car in 2012. Kahne has a crew chief he really likes in Kenny Francis, and Francis has seemed to be the odd man out in the entire Kahne saga.

It appears he can’t move over to Red Bull next season with Kahne because manufacturer Toyota seems opposed to allowing a crew chief a one-year internship with its parts and pieces _ the chance to gain insight Francis could later take elsewhere, namely Hendrick Motorsports.

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