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NASCAR: For Dale Earnhardt Junior, the Time Is Now

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - JULY 29:  Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Amp Energy/National Guard Chevrolet, stands in the garage during the practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 29, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Tom Pennington/Getty Images
Clint BryantCorrespondent IIAugust 2, 2011

Earlier in the season, after nearly winning Charlotte and Kansas, Junior Nation was on top of the world.

It would come soon, that elusive win. No longer would fans of other drivers be touting the 100+ race losing streak.

The chase was a lock. Third in points more than halfway to the chase, this year he would contend.

Six races later, it seems like the same old roller coaster is taking them for another spin.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. left Michigan International Raceway third in the points standings. A blown engine, a flat tire, a pit penalty and bad handling race car later, he is barely hanging on to tenth.

Much of the collapse of the No. 88 team's secure chase spot was not of their doing. You get put in the wall at Michigan by one of the cleanest drivers in the sport and then finish 41st after running into someone else's accident at Sonoma, and you are going to lose some points.

The key, however, is to recover.

And the truth is, we are not seeing it.

The Hendrick team led by Steve Letarte has struggled as of late to capture the consistency that, at one time, had Junior with a two race points cushion over the 11th-place driver.

Qualifying, even in the good races, has been terrible. Anything inside the top 20 is one of the better efforts of the season.

Can Steve Letarte rally the troops and get Dale and his No. 88 machine in the chase?

Earnhardt heads to Pocono in 10th place with a 19 point lead over Denny Hamlin.

You read right, Pocono and Hamlin... a BAD combination for someone holding on to the last chase berth.

Denny Hamlin is a perennial favorite at Pocono, always a threat to win.

So the situation is this:

The No. 88 team is running mediocre and having a round of bad luck to boot.

The driver they are fending off is heading to a string of his strongest tracks.

The fans are questioning and the media is pouncing... what will they do?

It is all up to Junior.

Letarte can only cheer him on so far and Mr. Hendrick can only move around so many people. Right now, it is all up to Dale.

This is the most critical year in the career of the son of NASCAR's greatest driver. With an unsigned contract seemingly waiting on this year's results, this has to be the year of a rebound.

Fall out of the chase and finish the season in 14th place and winless, he may just be written off for good.

He has the last chase berth in his possession along with one of the best teams in NASCAR and six races to make it work. On some of those tracks he has had success, on some he has struggled.

But if you are going to be a successful NASCAR driver and contend for a championship, these are the moments when you grab the wheel, take your team on your back, and press the gas pedal through the floor to make it happen.

Six races, two options: Win and make the chase or lose and fade into oblivion.

It is all up to you, Dale. Show us what you've got.

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