Dale Earnhardt Jr. coined one of NASCAR’s most popular phrases – “It’s Bristol, baby” – when he won the summer night race at Bristol Motor Speedway in 2004.
Fast forward 13 years and following Saturday night’s race there, it’s now “It used to be Bristol, baby” for Earnhardt.
Earnhardt’s hopes of wrapping up his 35-start Cup tenure at Bristol didn’t turn out the way he planned, finishing 23rd, three laps down.
It was his second consecutive finish of 20th or worse and fourth in his last seven starts this season.
“We struggled,” Earnhardt said after the race. “We had a real fast car for like 10-15 laps and then we would just real, real tight, so we struggled all day trying to figure it out.
“We weren’t good and we weren’t going to fix it on pit road either. We’ve got a lot of tools on pit road to really get after it, but the problems we had we couldn’t fix with wedge or trackbar.”
Now, after nearly three dozen career Cup starts at NASCAR’s so-called Last Great Coliseum, amassing one win, eight top-fives and 16 top-10s, Junior will never pass this way again.
Sure, he’ll keep returning to BMS for many more years to come as a NASCAR On NBC broadcaster and NASCAR Xfinity team co-owner, but never again as a Cup racer.
“I think I will much rather enjoy coming here and watching,” Earnhardt said with a laugh after Saturday night’s race.”
But there’s little humor at how his season has gone, and Bristol only added to the disappointment and frustration of what has been much of the 2017 season for him.
“This race track can be a lot of fun (but also) can be very difficult,” Earnhardt said. “There is never really no middle ground. We struggling, gosh, I just don’t know what to do. We were pretty quick for the first 20 laps, passed five cars and then we dropped like a rock.”
Earnhardt has now finished 20th or worse in 12 of this season’s first 24 NASCAR Cup races. He’s 22nd in the point standings, with zero wins, one top-five and just four top-10s this season.
If he keeps up that pace, Earnhardt’s final season as a NASCAR Cup driver has the possibility of ending up as one of the worst full-time seasons of his career (not including last year’s half-season due to injury).
If not the worst.
But NASCAR’s 14-time most popular driver is quick to not point a finger of blame for his team’s struggles at crew chief Greg Ives, his pit crew or race preparation and car building back at Hendrick Motorsports’ campus.
He even took to social media to reiterate it:
Granted, Earnhardt still has a chance to make the NASCAR Cup playoffs, but it’s an all-or-none proposition. He’s 22nd in the playoff standings with no stage wins or playoff points to date this season.
He has to win either at Darlington (21 career starts there with 0 wins, 4 top-fives and 10 top-10s) or the final playoff-qualifying race at Richmond (35 starts, 3 wins, 10 top-fives and 14 top-10s) to make the 16-driver playoffs.
The odds are long, but Earnhardt isn’t going to stop trying.
We’ve just got to get our stuff together as a team,” Earnhardt said. “The team works closely enough with me to know that I’m plugged in and they still see something in me that gives them confidence that if we can get the cars going and get everything working right, we can have some good runs.
“There is still some time to make that happen, but we’ve got a long way to go to catch some of those guys.”