- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 17, 2009

CONCORD, N.C. | Dale Earnhardt Jr. hit rock bottom during his previous trip to Lowe’s Motor Speedway. He struggled with his car, feuded with his crew chief and finished a season-low 40th in one of the most embarrassing weekends of his career.

Team owner Rick Hendrick fired crew chief Tony Eury Jr. three days after that May debacle, and things were supposed to turn around with some fresh leadership at Earnhardt’s No. 88 team.

It hasn’t happened.

Little has changed, at least in terms of results, in the four-plus months since. Back at the track for Saturday night’s race, Earnhardt is slogging through a 51-race winless streak dating to 2008, his first season with Hendrick Motorsports.

He’s 22nd in the standings, has five top-10s and five DNFs this season and hasn’t finished higher than 17th in the past six races.

“It’s like really encouraging one day and the next day it’s equally discouraging, and that gets really old,” Earnhardt said Friday. “I’m about to the end of my rope on it.”

Earnhardt seemed deflated as he spoke candidly about a season he has repeatedly characterized as the worst of his career. He said earlier this season that his struggles and the emotional split with Eury, his cousin, weighed heavily on his family. Earnhardt doesn’t think he’s mentally strong enough to weather another year this bad.

He could stomach it if there were light at the end of the tunnel, but Earnhardt didn’t seem encouraged about the progress of his team - particularly when teammates Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon hold three of the top five spots in the standings and are all in contention for the Sprint Cup title.

The three Hendrick cars were predictably stout in Friday’s qualifying - Johnson and Martin swept the front row - but Earnhardt was 39th and said his team looked “ridiculous.”

Even worse, he doesn’t have any solutions.

“I’ve been riding it out, but there comes a point where you don’t want to ride it out no more. You’ve just had enough,” he said. “It’s been so low. The highs have not been very high, and the lows have been terribly low. … I don’t know what else to do.”

It’s a far cry from two weeks ago, when Earnhardt seemed upbeat after qualifying second at Kansas. He gave interim crew chief Lance McGrew a strong endorsement for 2010 and thought his team had turned a corner.

But after leading 41 laps at Kansas, a pit-road penalty took him out of contention and an engine problem later ended his race early. He was good last week at California, too, but was hit late by Ryan Newman; the contact caused a flat tire. It started a sequence of events that led to a late accident and a 25th-place finish.

“I was really upset,” he said. “I was really, really upset.”

To the point that Earnhardt no longer even trusts his recommendation that McGrew should stay next season. Hendrick said at Kansas that his plan has always been to discuss next season after this race, and Earnhardt doesn’t have much confidence in his suggestions right now.

“I don’t have the credentials to make the call, you know?” he said. “If I told you I wanted to be with Lance next year, I wouldn’t be telling that out of my knowledge of expertise and talent. I’d be telling you because it’s fun hanging out with him. I don’t think I’m the guy to leave that decision up to because I wouldn’t make the right one.”

Former Cup champion Rusty Wallace said he has spoken to Earnhardt. He characterized his mood as “total frustration mode.”

“He’s in this tough position because Hendrick Motorsports is so good. You got Johnson, you got Gordon, you got Mark Martin and they’re running up front, and he can’t get his hot rod to run up front,” Wallace said. “I almost feel like this guy needs a group of bandits to let him go out in the garage all by himself and say, ‘Here, do anything you… want for a month, and let’s see how it turns out.’ ”

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