BROOKLYN, Mich. – Eleven top-10 finishes. Second place in the Sprint Cup standings.
That’s an impressive start to the season for any driver, but for Dale Earnhardt Jr., it only makes the question more persistent.
When will he finally win again?
“I feel like we’re getting real close,” Earnhardt said. “We’ve been really competing well and been competitive every week, at every track, and that feels really good to say.”
Earnhardt is back at Michigan International Speedway for this weekend’s 400-mile race – four years after he won at this same track. He’s without a victory in 143 Cup races since, and all the steady consistency in the world isn’t going to take the attention off that ugly streak.
Last weekend at Pocono, Earnhardt led 36 laps in his No. 88 Chevrolet and had it positioned as the car to beat until crew chief Steve Letarte made a call for a late stop for gas instead of trying to stretch the fuel to the end. Earnhardt finished eighth. He supported the call and said he’d take a top-10 finish any time over running out of gas.
“I knew that we weren’t doing the popular thing by pitting and taking the fuel,” Earnhardt said.
Earnhardt said he’s fine with the questions about his winless drought because at least people still care and are paying attention to him.
“It hasn’t been that incessant,” he said. “If you weren’t asking that kind of question I would be a little worried.”
Other drivers certainly are aware of Earnhardt’s dry spell.
“I feel if you go four months, it’s tough enough,” Jeff Gordon said. “I think it all depends on the expectations. If you won a lot of races and then you go into a slump like that, it weighs more heavy on you because you came to not just expect it, but you feel like you’re capable and your team is capable of winning on a more regular basis. So when that all of a sudden doesn’t come it’s much tougher to handle.”
Greg Biffle can relate, sort of. He ended a 49-race winless streak in April with a victory in Texas.
“It wears on you,” Biffle said. “The other thing that is actually worse for (Earnhardt) right now is that he is running so good, that it seems like when you run as good as he is running, the pressure is even greater because you know a win is just around the corner, if that makes any sense.”
Earnhardt doesn’t seem to be pressing – witness last weekend’s move to pit rather than making a risky bid for a victory. This year, Earnhardt has finished second twice, third twice and no lower than 17th.
Forget winning a race. At this point, he has his sights on trying to win the overall series championship, and that’s part of the reason he played it safe at Pocono.
“It’s best that we made a good call, and we were good enough to get back up in the top 10,” Earnhardt said. “If we can put together this type of performance in the Chase, I don’t see why we can’t consider ourselves with an opportunity to challenge for the championship.”
But no matter how much he tries to stay the course, the focus from the outside remains on his lack of victories. When asked Thursday what he remembered most about his fuel-mileage victory at MIS four years ago, Earnhardt paused for a while. The date was June 15, 2008, and he snapped what was at that point a 76-race winless string.
“Probably just the nerves of the last few laps,” Earnhardt said. “To know we had a green-white checkered and not sure I had enough gas to make it.”
Earnhardt has won twice at MIS and finished 10 times in the top 10 in 18 starts. The track was repaved during the offseason, and Sprint Cup drivers almost routinely have been surpassing 200 mph during practice runs.
Earnhardt surpassed 201 on Friday.
“Up until last week, I felt like they were a team that was just strong and consistent and doing a great job, but not really a team that showed like they really had what it took to win,” Gordon said. “Last week, they showed by dominating that race that they really stepped up their game this year and have a real legitimate shot at winning races.”
Nigel Kinrade/Associated Press file photo