NASCAR: Junior back in the high life again
By Mark Long
LONG POND, Pa. ó Dale Earnhardt Jr. needed an extreme makeover to shake up his sagging career. New shop. New crew chief. New team.
Now comes the best part for NASCARís most popular driver.
His winless drought is stuck on 106 races entering Pocono Raceway and the three-year mark of his last victory is closing in. Earnhardt, though, might finally have his career back on track after a string of underachieving seasons at Hendrick Motorsports.
His next win, especially if it comes soon, wonít be a stunner because heís been one of the hottest drivers in the sport, boosting both his morale and his spot in the standings.
ěWeíre not satisfied. We want to win races,î Earnhardt said Friday. ěI know those guys are itching to win and get into Victory Lane.î
Heís getting close to grabbing the checkered flag.
Earnhardt thought he was going to win at Martinsville Speedway until Kevin Harvick passed him with four laps left for the win. He settled for second, which started a string of three top-10 finishes. Then came heartbreak at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He led on the final lap before his gas tank ran dry and finished seventh. Last week at Kansas, another second, giving him seven top 10s this season ó one fewer than his 36-race total from a year ago.
Earnhardt has battled the frustration of being so close to taking the checkered flag with the pride of knowing heís running at the front of the pack. He has not won since Michigan in June 2008, his first season with Hendrick Motorsports.
He was 12th in the standings that year, then finished 21st last year and 25th in 2009.
In any other sport, those kind of results can get you booed out of town.
But Earnhardtís legion of diehards have never wavered in their support even as he slumped, and few sounds in sports can match the roar from the stands when No. 88 zooms into the lead.
They all have reason to cheer this year.
Earnhardt pointed to all the changes at Hendrick for the reason heís third in the points race. His partnership with crew chief Steve Letarte, who previously called the shots for Jeff Gordon, has been an instant success. When the car does struggle or they fall a lap behind, they still find a way to keep the race from completely getting out of hand.
ěI feel like itís a good relationship and going pretty good,î Earnhardt said. ěJust trying to protect it and keep it going that way.î
Team owner Rick Hendrick has long tried to find the right formula to make Earnhardt as successful ó or least in the same league ó as teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.
Earnhardt remains upbeat that his first win in three years is on the way.
ěItís great, itís not frustrating,î he said. ěIím running good. Thatís great. Itís where you want to be. Close. Itís not winning. Itís better than running damn 25th and 30th every week, Iíll tell you that.î
Heís not satisfied, though. Earnhardt knows he has to win a race for fans and critics to believe heís really a contender.
Breaking through this weekend might prove heís for real. Heís 0-for-Pocono ó Earnhardt has five top-fives in 22 races on the 21/2-mile triangle track. But he hasnít finished better than 12th and has three finishes in the 20s in his last five races at Long Pond, Pa.
ěWeíve had a lot of good runs, but the last couple of years havenít been that awesome,î Earnhardt said.
If not Sunday, maybe next week at Michigan. His last win came there on June 15, 2008.
Earnhardt has to believe his time to celebrate is near.
ěI donít know that Iíve been the kind of person to be certain about anything,î he said. ěIím not an assuming kind of person. I probably never felt that way.î
The Associated Press