All the talk this past week -- indeed, the entire Sprint Cup season -- of the need to split up Dale Earnhardt Jr and his crew chief/cousin, Tony Eury Jr, obscures two noteworthy facts.

First, Earnhardt is a mere 66 points out twelfth place, the final Chase-eligible position, and, second, there are 21 races before the field for the Chase is set, in September, at Richmond, prompting team owner Rick Hendrick to make it clear that he was not going to split up the two Juniors.

"I am 100 per cent behind this group," Hendrick said, "I have no intentions of making any changes. I have all intentions of making it better."

Although Earnhardt has only one top ten finish in the first five races, the #88 team has been making progress. Since experiencing an engine failure in the second race and finishing 39th at Auto Club Speedway and dropping to 35th in the standings, Earnhardt has finished tenth, eleventh and 14th to move to 19th in the points standings.

Is Earnhardt's start below expectations? Certainly. Is his season over? Hardly.

"This year has been a slow start," Hendrick admitted, "but look at Mark Martin, a guy that I wanted to have an opportunity to come win a championship, and then we have some mechanical problems that normally we don't have that's put them behind.

"This is a tough sport, and I look at guys you've always got to beat at Bristol - Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards. They are always there at the end and they were struggling. Nobody is immune from kind of having some problems."

Sunday's Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500 at the 0.526-mile Martinsville Speedway is a good track for Earnhardt to continue his surge and reinforce the confidence he received from Hendrick. Earnhardt finished second at Martinsville last fall and has eight top-five finishes in 17 races.

"We've had a lot of good finishes there the last couple years, and you enjoy going there," Eury said, "And, as long as it's one of the tracks you enjoy, you tend to run really good there."

by Bill Marx
Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service



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