Junior tries to find way
BROOKLYN, Mich. — It’s not the kind of anniversary Dale Earnhardt Jr. enjoys celebrating.
NASCAR’s most popular driver heads to Michigan International Speedway today for the Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400 — the same track where, two years ago, he last made it to Victory Lane.
It has been 71 long races since Earnhardt memorably coaxed his No. 88 Chevrolet to the finish line at the 2-mile oval, alternately starting and then killing the engine to conserve enough fuel to reach the checkered flag under caution.
He hoped his first win at Hendrick Motorsports would be the start of big things. Instead, it’s been two years of mostly big headaches.
Earnhardt missed the Chase for the Championship last year and is in danger of missing out again this fall. He’s 16th in points with 12 races remaining in the regular season and as close to falling out of the picture as he is of cracking the top 12. After finishing second at Daytona, he’s faded as the temperatures have warmed with just one top-10 finish in his last nine races.
Yet Earnhardt is surprisingly upbeat. He remains confident in crew chief Lance McGrew despite some missteps in the race setups and pit strategy in recent weeks.
“With everything that I’ve been through since I won my last race, I can honestly tell you . . . this weekend I’ll get in the car and I firmly believe in what Lance is going to do, what the team is going to do,’’ said Earnhardt, who will start 27th.
Besides, Earnhardt realizes he’s as culpable for the drought as anyone.
“I know I as a driver can always improve for this team,’’ he said. “If I was sitting there with a perfect record on my part, on my end, maybe I’d have some grounds to point some fingers.’’
Rather than assign blame, Earnhardt is trying to stay positive. During last week’s race at Pocono, he remained in constant contact with McGrew and stayed optimistic even as he slid from third to 19th.
“I know with myself personally if I feel like I see a weakness in a team, it bugs [me],’’ Earnhardt said. “I just haven’t seen it there.’’
Neither have his teammates. Mark Martin pointed to Earnhardt’s struggles as proof of how difficult it is to win at the Cup level regardless of how easy the other Hendrick drivers make it look. Earnhardt’s teammates have won 22 times since his last triumph.
“Many of them have been foiled by one little issue here, one little issue there. They are dug in,’’ Martin said.
It’s a compliment Earnhardt tries to shrug off. Martin is his friend. It’s what he’s supposed to say.
“I’m sure he is having to be positive due to our relationship as co-worker, but at the same time I feel like he feels honest because I do work really hard out there,’’ Earnhardt said.
“I drove last week as hard as I could every lap because I knew we were really close on the car.’’
That hasn’t always been the case. Earnhardt says the days when he could cruise around before trying to get to the front are over. He believes he’s more competitive on a lap-to-lap basis now than he’s ever been in his career.
He’ll need to be if he wants to finally end a streak he never saw coming.