Will one last chance be enough to save Dale Earnhardt Jr.?

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For Dale Earnhardt Jr., it’s all come down to this:

One or done.

Or to put it in more succinct terms, win or done.

As Junior prepares to head to Talladega in a few days, he’s in perhaps the most desperate time of his 15-year Sprint Cup career.

Tied for last in the Chase for the Sprint Cup standings, with teammate Jimmie Johnson no less, the two Hendrick Motorsports drivers are on the verge of elimination.

They both have to win at Talladega to advance to the Eliminator Round – but only one can wind up in Victory Lane.

Sure, mathematically, Earnhardt and Johnson still have chances of advancing to the next round after Talladega without a win, but it will take a lot of luck for them and misfortune for the other 12 Chase drivers to see that possibility realized — two distinct things that you simply can’t count on in the unpredictable world of NASCAR.

Junior has enjoyed his best season in nearly a decade. With three wins, starting with the season-opening Daytona 500 triumph, he’s driven like he did in his early days at Dale Earnhardt Inc.

But somehow, some way, Earnhardt has slipped, fallen and plummeted in the last two races. Starting the Contender Round in a 12-way tie for first place, he’s dropped like a rock to the bottom of the Chase ocean.

And now he’s heading back to Talladega, where at one point early in his career he was so successful and victorious with five wins that fans started to call it TallaDalega.

But Junior’s last win on the 2.66-mile high-banked track was a decade ago, ironically enough, in fall of 2004 – just like this weekend.

Since then, Junior has competed 19 more times at ‘Dega with just three top-fives and three other top-10s.

There have been no wins, although he did come close in this race last season, finishing runner-up.

While as a journalist, you’re not supposed to have favorites, as a race fan I can’t help but feel sorry for Earnhardt’s plight.

This was supposed to be THE season for Junior. After winning Daytona, the year just had a different feel.

And for perhaps the first time in Earnhardt’s career, he had himself and his fans believing that this would finally be the year he’d earn that elusive first Sprint Cup championship.

There were other incentives as well. He was turning 40 (did so this past Friday) and to show his appreciation for all the things that crew chief Steve Letarte had done for him in the last three seasons, Junior was bound and determined to send Letarte out as a winner.

(Letarte will leave Earnhardt and Hendrick Motorsports at the end of this season to become a full-time NASCAR analyst for NBC.)

How has THE season, the long hoped for season, the one where Junior was going to channel Larry The Cable Guy and “Git ‘er done,” suddenly fallen apart so badly?

How heartbroken will the Junior Nation be if their favorite driver – and the most popular driver the last 11 seasons – fails to seal what looked like it was a sure thing, it was meant to be?

Two things will happen at Talladega. Either Junior wins there and the place and NASCAR and the sport go crazy in response, or he leaves there having come so close, only to fall short once again.

In a season where many felt it was Junior’s destiny to finally win the Cup crown, to come so close only to fall short, perhaps the actual reality is that maybe being a Sprint Cup champ will never be meant to be for Junior.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Hunter Lawrence defends Haiden Deegan after controversial block pass at Detroit

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Media and fan attention focused on a controversial run-in between Haiden Deegan and his Monster Energy Yamaha Star Racing teammate Jordon Smith during Round 10 of the Monster Energy Supercross race at Detroit, after which the 250 East points’ Hunter Lawrence defends the young rider in the postrace news conference.

Deegan took the early lead in Heat 1 of the round, but the mood swiftly changed when he became embroiled in a spirited battle with teammate Smith.

On Lap 3, Smith caught Deegan with a fast pass through the whoops. Smith briefly held the lead heading into a bowl turn but Deegan had the inside line and threw a block pass. In the next few turns, the action heated up until Smith eventually ran into the back of Deegan’s Yamaha and crashed.

One of the highlights of the battle seemed to include a moment when Deegan waited on Smith in order to throw a second block pass, adding fuel to the controversy.

After his initial crash, Smith fell to seventh on the next lap. He would crash twice more during the event, ultimately finishing four laps off the pace in 20th.

The topic was inevitably part of the postrace news conference.

“It was good racing; it was fun,” Deegan said at about the 27-minute mark in the video above. “I just had some fun doing it.”

Smith had more trouble in the Last Chance Qualifier. He stalled his bike in heavy traffic, worked his way into a battle for fourth with the checkers in sight, but crashed a few yards shy of the finish line and was credited with seventh. Smith earned zero points and fell to sixth in the standings.

Lawrence defends Deegan
Jordon Smith failed to make the Detroit Supercross Main and fell to sixth in the points. – Feld Motor Sports

“I think he’s like fifth in points,” Deegan said. “He’s a little out of it. Beside that it was good, I don’t know. I wasn’t really paying attention.”

Deegan jokingly deflected an earlier question with the response that he wasn’t paying attention during the incident.

“He’s my teammate, but he’s a veteran, he’s been in this sport for a while,” Deegan said. “I was up there just battling. I want to win as much as everybody else. It doesn’t matter if it’s a heat race or a main; I just want to win. I was just trying to push that.”

As Deegan and Smith battled, Jeremy Martin took the lead. Deegan finished second in the heat and backed up his performance with a solid third-place showing in the main, which was his second podium finish in a short six-race career. Deegan’s first podium was earned at Daytona, just two rounds ago.

But as Deegan struggled to find something meaningful to say, unsurprisingly for a 17-year-old rider who was not scheduled to run the full 250 schedule this year, it was the championship leader Lawrence who came to his defense.

Lawrence defends Deegan
A block pass by Haiden Deegan led to a series of events that eventually led to Jordon Smith failing to make the Main. – Feld Motor Sports

“I just want to point something out, which kind of amazes me,” Lawrence said during the conference. “So many of the people on social media, where everyone puts their expertise in, are saying the racing back in the ’80s, the early 90s, when me were men. They’re always talking about how gnarly it was and then anytime a block pass or something happens now, everyone cries about it.

“That’s just a little bit interesting. Pick one. You want the gnarly block passes from 10 years ago and then you get it, everyone makes a big song and dance about it.”

Pressed further, Lawrence defended not only the pass but the decision-making process that gets employed lap after lap in a Supercross race.

“It’s easy to point the finger,” Lawrence said. “We’re out there making decisions in a split millisecond. People have all month to pay their phone bill and they still can’t do that on time.

“We’re making decisions at such a fast reaction [time with] adrenaline. … I’m not just saying it for me or Haiden. I speak for all the guys. No one is perfect and we’re under a microscope out there. The media is really quick to point a finger when someone makes a mistake.”

The media is required to hold athletes accountable for their actions. They are also required to tell the complete story.