No other NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver is cheered and scrutinized more than Dale Earnhardt Jr. His mega fan base easily makes him the most popular driver, but he has failed to provide them the one thing that every fan of “Junior Nation” is looking to rejoice in – a victory.
It has been 129 races since Earnhardt Jr.’s last visit to Victory Lane on June 15, 2008, at Michigan International Speedway. Despite the long winless drought, Earnhardt arrives upon another year with added optimism and it begins Sunday with the season-opening Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway (Noon CT, FOX). With Steve Letarte in his second year as crew chief for the No. 88 AMP Energy/National Guard Chevrolet and coming off a season where he qualified for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup for the first time since 2006, Earnhardt Jr. is confident he can return to his winning ways.
“Last year was probably the best opportunity I’ve had in a long time to win races,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “That makes me feel like I’m on the verge and that it could happen. The confidence that, ‘Hey, it’s there,’ wasn’t there before. It’s tough to break any streak and there are a lot of mental hurdles that are there. I feel like it will happen for us.”
Team owner Rick Hendrick doesn’t dwell on his driver’s winless drought. Hendrick remains focused on the team’s improvement over the course of the 2011 season and feels they are headed in the right direction.
“I don’t think there’s any reason to talk about it,” Hendrick said of Earnhardt Jr.’s winless streak. “He knows there has been a streak. Junior was a quart of gas away from winning last year. He had a couple of other situations that cost him. If you just show up and be competitive, you’ll win your share. I think that’s going to happen for him this year.”
The 2011 season was going so well for Earnhardt Jr. that he was disappointed that it had to come to an end. With the opportunity to experiment at the end of the season, Earnhardt Jr. felt the team was hitting its stride.
“We were working with some ideas that Kenny Francis had started bringing to the table and just as a team we were continuously improving and learning things about the cars,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I thought if we could have had three or four more weeks of racing then we could continue to improve.”
The team’s improvement is no more evident than the confidence and enthusiasm exuded by Letarte. For him nothing can help his team more than returning to the track.
“I have Dale Earnhardt Jr., one of the best guys to sit in a stock car, in my opinion, and I can’t wait to get to Daytona with him,” Letarte said.
Earnhardt Jr. couldn’t agree more with Letarte’s assessment. The opportunity to get back to the track is something he eyed the entire offseason.
“I’m ready to get back to that,” Earnhardt Jr. said of racing. “I’m ready to get chances again. I want to win a race pretty bad, but I can’t do that without racing and we haven’t been doing any so it’s been a little frustrating.”
There is no better place for him to mark an end to his frustrations more than Daytona International Speedway and the “Super Bowl” of NASCAR. A race that has given and taken away so much from the Earnhardt family offers the ideal stage for Earnhardt Jr. to smash his winless streak and build momentum for a championship run.
Earnhardt Jr.’s knack of finding the lead pack in the final laps of a restrictor-plate race has made him a threat to contend for a win at Daytona. Of his 18 career Sprint Cup Series victories, seven have come on restrictor-plate speedways, including his memorable 2004 Daytona 500 victory.
Since his win in 2004 he has gone on to lead at least one lap in all but one Daytona 500 – which came in 2007 – and finished a mere 0.119 of a second from winning a second in 2010 when Jaime McMurray edged him out for the victory.
“The Daytona 500 is almost like a season from start to finish,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “So much happens through that race to you, to everyone else. Even though it is 500 miles like other races, it feels like a 1,000 or 2,000 miles. Every single lap is such an adventure and trying to get to the ultimate goal. When you win that race that part makes it pretty special.”