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Friday, November 13, 2009
Junior missing out on the Hendrick fun

By David Newton
ESPN.com

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. was better in Dale Earnhardt Inc. equipment.

Don't laugh.

Look at the numbers, starting with Phoenix International Raceway, where the Sprint Cup Series resumes Sunday.

In three races for Hendrick Motorsports, Earnhardt has no wins, no top-5s and two top-10s at PIR. In 11 races here for DEI, he had two wins, four top-5s and five top-10s.

Take it a step further. In 70 career races for HMS, NASCAR's most popular driver has one win, 12 top-5s and 21 top-10s. In 291 career starts at DEI, he had 17 wins, 76 top-5s and 121 top-10s.

Dale Earnhardt Jr
Dale Earnhardt Jr. won back-to-back Sprint Cup races at Phoenix in 2003 and 2004 -- for DEI.

I could bore you with the percentages, but they'll say the obvious: Earnhardt was better in DEI equipment.

The numbers don't lie.

The numbers also don't lie when it comes to Hendrick Motorsports at PIR. The organization is so strong you wonder why the rest of the competition bothers to show up.

Consider: HMS has won five straight and six of the past eight races at this 1-mile track in the desert. In the past three, HMS cars have led 645 of 936 laps, a staggering 68.9 percent.

"I can say first of all, when I started driving for Hendrick, I don't think that Phoenix, this track, was one that was circled on the calendar for any of the teams," three-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said Friday. "I think we as an organization, as a group, have figured out how to get around this track, the setups we needed."

Johnson, who won three straight here before Mark Martin upstaged him in the spring, exemplifies Hendrick's dominance. In 12 starts, he has three wins, seven top-5s and 10 top-10s.

He has led 506 laps and has an average finish of 5.4.

Jeff Gordon's record here isn't shabby, either. In 21 starts, he has 15 top-10s and eight top-5s. Kyle Busch had a pretty good record here for HMS as well. In six starts, he had four top-10s and a win.

In three starts for Joe Gibbs Racing, Busch's best finish here is eighth.

Martin has been phenomenal here in HMS equipment. OK, so he's run only one race, but he won and led 157 of 312 laps.

He also wasn't bad in everything else he ran here, winning once and posting 15 top-10s in 24 races. And as he reminded on Friday, he was leading in a DEI car before the final pit stop of the 2008 spring race only to finish fourth as Johnson took control.

He led 68 laps in that DEI car as well.

That brings us back to Earnhardt. He led 310 laps here in his familiar old red No. 8. He had a stretch of four straight top-5s that included two consecutive wins in 2003 and 2004.

Look back at Hendrick in those years (2002-2005). Johnson had only -- remember, only is relative here -- two top-5s and an average finish of 8.75 during that stretch. Gordon had only two top-5s as well and an average finish of 6.25.

So Earnhardt outperformed them.

Jimmie Johnson
Of the five wins Hendrick Motorsports drivers have posted in the past five races, Jimmie Johnson's got three of them.

In DEI equipment.

Told you not to laugh. Earnhardt was better in the equipment stepmom Teresa Earnhardt provided him, the same equipment he grumbled about all the time before bolting after the 2007 season.

"Those two cars I won here with were insane," Earnhardt said Friday. "I watched a replay on ESPN Classic a couple of nights ago. We just had dominant cars. We've been able to run OK in the COT [at HMS]. I haven't quite jelled that magical feel that I want and had in those cars, even in the DEI COT stuff."

He's not better than Johnson, Gordon and Martin in the equipment he has now. They are 1-2-3 in points. He is 23rd.

The good news is HMS is dominant at PIR, which means Earnhardt has one last legitimate chance to win before this season ends with Johnson expected to win another title next weekend at Homestead-Miami. He was close here in 2008 with finishes of sixth and seventh.

Earnhardt actually was running well here in the spring before colliding with former HMS driver Casey Mears with 11 laps remaining to drop to 31st. He also earned a six-week probation from NASCAR for retaliating on the cool-down lap, but that's another story.

So maybe Earnhardt doesn't need to pack up and leave with the rest of the garage. Perhaps he should hang around for what certainly will be a four-way battle between the HMS drivers.

Johnson insists the No. 2 of Kurt Busch will be there at the end, particularly off the momentum of winning last week at Texas. He's mindful of the Richard Childress Racing cars that have shown great improvement over the past few weeks and traditionally do well at PIR.

"No telling how it will shake out," Johnson said.

Yeah, right. And Hendrick is switching to Honda at the end of the season.

Martin believes the HMS dominance has more to do with the drivers than the equipment.

"Certain drivers get around certain tracks," he said. "[But] for me to come to a Hendrick car here was certainly a good thing."

He's got that right. Put it in the books. HMS will win its sixth straight race here Sunday.

If it's Earnhardt, we'll rethink whether he was better off in DEI equipment.

Don't laugh.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.