Leave something in a pressure cooker long enough, and it's bound to boil over.

A litany of setbacks in a season of frustration has hit critical mass for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who craves a solution to the performance problems of his #88 team but is at a loss when trying to identify possible solutions.

"I'm about to the end of my rope on it," Earnhardt said, after reciting chapter and verse on last week's late wreck at Fontana, Calif., and Thursday night's bewilderingly poor qualifying run at Lowe's Motor Speedway. "I've been riding it out, but I think it comes there comes a point, though, where you don't want to ride it out anymore.

"It's been a long year. I really don't want the year to be over with, because I like going to the racetrack every week and racing, but the last several - well, all year, it's been so low. The 'highs' have been not very high, and the 'lows' have been terribly low. So that's hard to want to get back up and try again the next week, when you take such a beating, but I don't know what else to do."

Earnhardt's frustration came to a head Thursday. The proximate cause was a 39th-place qualifying run - after posting the 13th-fastest time during Sprint Cup practice earlier in the day. Last Sunday, a flat tyre late in the race at Fontana derailed what promised to be a top-ten run. Earnhardt slowed in front of Elliott Sadler, and contact between their two cars ignited a multicar pileup in turn one.

"We come off of turn four at California, and Ryan Newman hit me in the left rear quarter panel and knocked the valve stem out of tyre," said Earnhardt, who retired two laps short of the finish in 25th place. "I had a flat tyre going down the front straightaway, and I couldn't go nowhere, because I had guys on the inside of me. Elliott didn't know that I had a flat, and neither did the #17 (Matt Kenseth) behind him, and when they got to me, I couldn't control my car anymore. I was out of air in the tyre. That was frustrating. I was really upset. I was really, really upset.

"Last night (Thursday) we go out, and we were top 15 in practice, and we went out and tried to qualify, and we're one of the worst cars here. We don't know why or have any answer for it. All the other (Hendrick Motorsports) cars qualified fine, did well, backed their times up in practice, and we didn't even get close. We looked ridiculous last night. So it's like really encouraging one day, and then the next day it's equally discouraging. And that gets really old."

Still unsettled is the matter of Earnhardt's crew chief for next season. Owner Rick Hendrick brought Earnhardt and crew chief Tony Eury Jr. to his organization as a package deal to start the 2008 season. After continued struggles in 2009, Lance McGrew replaced Eury before the May race at Dover. Though the team has shown improvement since then, Earnhardt hasn't finished as well as he has run in most races, and McGrew's status is still a question mark.

"I haven't talked to Rick about it," Earnhardt said of the crew-chief choice. "I don't have the credentials to make the call. If I told you that I wanted to be with Lance next year, I wouldn't be telling you that out of my knowledge of expertise and talent. I'd be telling you because it's fun hanging out with him. Whoever I work with needs to be dictated. The most success I had was with Tony (Eury) Sr. (Eury Jr.'s father and Earnhardt's long-time crew chief at Dale Earnhardt Inc.), and you know how he runs his ship.

"I don't think I'm the guy to leave that decision up to, because I wouldn't make the right one - or there's probably better people to make it, especially in the organisation, man. There's a lot of smart people around there. I'm just waiting for somebody to make the call, man. Just put the damn team together and say 'This is what you got; this is what you're going to do next year.' I'm just kind of waiting on that to happen."

As he waits, the frustration mounts.

"We just need to run better, and it's not happening," Earnhardt said. "It's not happening fast enough. ... Even when we're creeping inside the top ten like we were last week, it's not good enough. It's really frustrating.

"I feel like I don't have any control. Rick's put me in a great position, but I haven't made the most of it, or for whatever reason, we're just not getting it done."
by Reid Spencer/Sporting News