Darlington a thorn in Junior's side

May, 7, 2010

DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn't planning to retire anytime soon, but when he does Darlington Raceway likely will be where he announces it.

"This place will probably be the catalyst to my retirement one day," NASCAR's most popular driver said on Friday after hitting the wall with his primary and backup cars in practice. "I'll probably come here when I'm 45, run a race and say, 'The hell with it.'"

The 35-year-old Earnhardt told crew chief Lance McGrew the same story 15 minutes earlier, explaining his love-hate relationship with the 1.366-mile track in the South Carolina Sandhills goes back to his first race here as a Cup rookie in 2000.

The way Earnhardt told the story, he was feeling pretty good about the start of the season coming off a win at Texas with several other top-10 finishes. Perhaps the extreme heat at Darlington shook his memory, because in reality Earnhardt had three finishes of 19th or better in his first four races and was coming off a 29th at Atlanta.

But let's not let facts get in the way of a good story. According to McGrew, Earnhardt had a top-10 car at Darlington when, as happens to most drivers whether young or experienced, he got loose, spun out and hit the wall.

A storied career almost ended before it began.

"They fix it and send him back out and it's still ridiculously loose," McGrew said as he continued to rehash the story. "He was all but ready to quit, like it's that bad, like there's no way [he] can race here a million times."

Earnhardt felt a little better after it was discovered at the shop, Dale Earnhardt Inc. in those days, that there was a problem with the axle.

But he's still never felt comfortable at NASCAR's oldest superspeedway, a track where his father ranks second in all-time wins with nine. Spinning out on his second lap Friday with a car way too loose probably didn't help any.

"His reality of coming off Turn 4 every single lap, he said you just look at that big corner coming up at you and go crap and crap and crap," McGrew said.

OK, Earnhardt probably used another word. But this is what McGrew is dealing with at the last track that he and Earnhardt haven't worked together.

McGrew is doing his best to motivate his driver, who slipped to 13th in points with last week's 32nd-place finish at Richmond. He's constantly in Earnhardt's ear reminding him he's really not bad at Darlington.

And he's right.

Before last year's 27th-place finish, Earnhardt had four straight top-10s and six straight finishes of 11th or better at NASCAR's toughest circuit. He's had seven top-10s and nine finishes of 11th or better in 15 Darlington starts for an average finish of 15.1.

That's better than Kyle Busch (20.4), who has a win here. It's better than Kurt Busch (17.5), Carl Edwards (15.7), Kasey Kahne (15.3), Matt Kenseth (18.0) and Kevin Harvick (20.1).

Earnhardt doesn't see it that way. He feels the pressure not to spin out every time he comes out of the tight corners in Turns 2 and 4 on this egg-shaped facility.

"This is a place he's just not comfortable," McGrew reiterated.

But McGrew's working on it. Earnhardt said he was happy with his backup car in the second practice even though he wasn't comfortable.

He may never be.

Join the crowd. At least a dozen drivers hit the wall on Friday and at least half went to backup cars.

"You know, we are just getting on the edge right here," Earnhardt said. "... There is a lot of dynamic wedge going in and out of the car through the corner. The car just really changes a lot as you are going around the corner and it can just snap on you.

"It is real easy."

Retirement may be a bit extreme, though.

David Newton | email

ESPN Staff Writer



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