Trackside: Earnhardt Jr. still driving NASCAR engine

DEAN McNULTY, Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 4:26 PM ET

The level of excitement injected into the season’s Chase of the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship with three drivers — Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick — all within spitting distance of each other, is starting to be reflected with an increase in the number of bums in the seats on Sunday afternoons.

This past Sunday, Martinsville Speedway was at about 95% capacity for the Tums Fast Relief 500 —an estimated 62,000 paying customers at a track that seats 65,000 — which is a significant number considering the bleak economic landscape in Virginia and surrounding environs.

And the trio did not disappoint, providing a solid 500 laps — minus the usual high number of cautions at the half-mile oval — of racing.

Something that certainly caught our attention, however, was the wildly enthusiastic reaction of the crowd when the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet of Dale Earnhardt Jr. led 90 laps at about the three-quarter mark of the afternoon.

After more than two seasons without a win, Earnhardt still has a tight grip on the majority of NASCAR fans.

NASCAR bosses, of course, are hoping against hope that Earnhardt’s improved driving keeps up, especially at Talladega this week, a track that he dominated when he was working at Dale Earnhardt Incorporated.

Because if the bean counters at NASCAR’s headquarters in Daytona Beach know anything, it is that a visit to Victory Lane by the No. 88 Chevrolet is a guaranteed recession buster.

When Earnhardt wins, everybody in NASCAR wins.

Rumour du Jour

Speaking of Earnhardt, the latest chapter in the changing corporate face at his father’s old team is being played out amid rumours that new co-owner Chip Ganassi has been talking about ending the 30-year relationship between the Earnhardts and Chevrolet.

The team — now called Earnhardt Ganassi Racing — has been something of a poor step-sister recently with Chevrolet putting most of is money and engineering power into the Hendrick, Richard Childress Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing teams.

Fox sports is reporting that EGR will announce at Talladega that it will run Fords next season. The team denies it will swtich, but admitted to meeting with Ford Racing officials.

That rumbling you here is Dale Earnhardt Sr. turning over in his grave.

On another front Jamie McMurray, driver of EGR’s No. 1 Chevrolet, is said to be close to signing a new deal with the team.

“We’re getting really close,” McMurray told The Sporting News on Tuesday.

Finish lines

Montreal native Alex Tagliani has been tabbed as among the top 10 drivers in the IZOD IndyCar Series by RACER magazine editors. Tags was No. 9 on the list ahead of Marco Andretti. Filling out the list were No. 8 Tony Kanaan, No. 7 Ryan Briscoe, No. 6 Ryan Hunter-Reay, No. 5 Justin Wilson, No. 4 Scott Dixon, No. 3 Helio Castroneves, No. 2 Dario Franchitti and No. 1 Will Power. Noticable by their absence from the list were Paul Tracy and Danica Patrick. ... Red Bull Racing is now considering giving team orders to Sebastian Vettel to play second fiddle in the remaining two Formula One races in order to get a championship for Mark Webber ... Aric Almirola will be back in he No. 9 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford Sunday at Talladega and 55-year-old Bill Elliott will be in the No. 26 Ford ... For the second week in a row the guys in the NASCAR Camping World truck series get to play back-up to the Sprint Cup show this week at Talladega. The Danica Patrick Show — er, the Nationwide series — has an off week before rejoining the travelling circus in Texas on Dec 6.

dean.mcnulty@sunmedia.ca


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