This is a tale of teammates, if you will.
Two guys racing for the same organization yet, so far in the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, with decidedly different results.
As far as competition goes they are poles apart.
One, who has been with the team since 2008, is having what many consider to be his best season in perhaps a half-dozen years.
The other, a newcomer to the team, was expected to do very well with a fresh opportunity and reach the potential he has shown more than once during his career.
Instead he has fallen into a competitive abyss.
Again, these two drivers are on the same team – and not just any team. They race for Hendrick Motorsports, arguably the best organization in NASCAR which has won 199 races and
Hendrick’s standing in NASCAR, in fact in all of motorsports, is so lofty that when Dale Earnhardt Jr. came on board four years ago, he declared he was a member of a team with which he could win races and championships.
He hasn’t won a race since 2008. He hasn’t come close to a championship.
It reached the point where Earnhardt Jr., driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet, was considered the weakest link in the Hendrick armor.
He was the also-ran, the afterthought of an operation in which Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon were the star players – Johnson especially so with five consecutive championships.
Even Mark Martin, who joined Hendrick in 2009 for the first of his three seasons with the team, did far better in his inaugural season.
He won five times and finished second to teammate Johnson in the final point standings.
That same year, a winless Earnhardt Jr. had only five top-10 finishes and wound up 25th in points – well out of the Chase.
Earnhardt Jr. put up better numbers over the next three seasons. But he still did not win.
It got to the point where some questioned his dedication, his focus and even his driving talent.
While his many, many fans were undoubtedly disappointed that their man couldn’t win, they never questioned his skill or desire.
They may get their ultimate reward this year.
Earnhardt Jr. is off to what is unquestionably his best start with Hendrick. In the first six races of the year he has earned four top-10 finishes.
Three of those have come among the top five and are a runnerup finish in the Daytona 500, a third-place run at Fontana and another second-place finish at Martinsville earlier this week.
Most important, Earnhardt Jr. ranks second in points, only six behind leader Greg Biffle, who, incidentally, is the only driver who can match Earnhardt Jr.’s record to date.
So what has made the difference? What has transformed Earnhardt Jr. from an afterthought to a potential championship challenger?
I’d be hard-pressed to explain it. I would assume there are many reasons.
But then, I would venture to say Earnhardt Jr.’s relationship with crew chief Steve Letarte is blossoming.
I recall once that Earnhardt Jr. said he had faith in Letarte and had to learn how to better communicate with him; to give him the information needed to improve competitiveness.
And I think Earnhardt Jr.’s confidence is back, perhaps even his optimism. During his pre-race press conference at Martinsville, if he said the word “confident” once, he said it a thousand times.
But if he knows what has created the turnaround, apparently he’s not saying – other than to, again, reveal his increased confidence.
“I don’t know what we have done and our team has done really,” he said. “But I’m happy with the way our car is running.”
He added that all the Hendrick teams have been faster so far in 2012.
“I think we are actually have more speed as a group, as a whole, than we did last year,” he said. “It’s encouraging.”
Reckon “encouraging” is about as far as Earnhardt Jr. needs to go. For him to make any grandiose pronouncements at this point would be foolish.
After all, the season has barely begun.
For which Kasey Kahne is thankful.
The newest member of the Hendrick team, who drives the No. 5 Chevrolet, has plenty of time to reverse what has been a disastrous beginning.
Kahne hasn’t gotten a whiff at a top-10 finish, much less a victory.
Fact is, he’s been awful.
He was 29th at Daytona, 34th at Phoenix, 19th at Las Vegas, 37th at Bristol, 14th at Fontana and 38th at Martinsville.
He’s presently 31st in the point standings.
Understand, all of this has been the result of circumstances well beyond Kahne’s control, such as wrecks and mechanical failures.
Call it bad luck, which has been so bad for Kahne it’s been suggested he’s been smacked with a voodoo mojo.
It’s certainly not what Kahne expected. Most of us didn’t either, for that matter.
He came to Hendrick with established credentials as a winner. He had 12 career victories, including six in 2006 with team owner Ray Evernham.
He even won a race with Red Bull Racing during that team’s lame duck 2011 season.
He knew then that he would join Hendrick in 2012 as Martin’s replacement.
And, as it was for Earnhardt Jr., it was going to be the revitalization of his career. He was going to be a part of a team with which he could win races and championships.
He may well be so, but certainly not at this pace.
For his part, Kahne appears stoic. He realizes things can change. He said so at Martinsville where, after he won his second pole of the year, he had engine problems.
“Well, I mean it is disappointing and yet it isn’t,” he said. “I am upset that we haven’t run great this year, but we were great on Friday and Saturday and we were fast again today.
“We have the speed. So when it’s our time we will be ready to take advantage of it.”
We have two drivers on the same team who are, at present, at different ends of the competitive spectrum.
Earnhardt Jr., at the top end, is cautiously optimistic that he can remain there – and enjoy a reversal of fortune.
Kahne, at the bottom, hopes his desperately needed reversal of fortune comes quickly.
For both, much time is left in the 2012 season. And time will tell.