TALLADEGA, Ala. – There was once a time when every move Dale Earnhardt Jr. made in a restrictor-plate race was the right one. He could slice his way through the field, drive to the front whenever he wanted, and was always the guy to beat at Daytona and Talladega.
That four-year stretch netted Earnhardt seven victories at NASCAR’s two fastest tracks, and gave him a confidence and air of invincibility.
It’s been more than five years, though, since Earnhardt last won a plate race. And though he’s still considered a contender every time he climbs into his car, he’s rarely called the favorite anymore.
Then came the season-opening Daytona 500, when for at least two laps, the old Earnhardt was back. He steamrolled his way from 10th to second with a series of jaw-dropping moves, falling just short of running down winner Jamie McMurray.
“At the end of that race, I just made enough of the right decisions,” Earnhardt said Friday. “If I’d made a couple more – maybe I made a few wrong decisions that cost me the win – and maybe if I had done things just a little differently, we’d be holding the trophy at the end of that race.”
Earnhardt understands why his Daytona drive received so much attention because just like his ardent fan base, he too saw a flash of how things used to be for NASCAR’s most popular driver.
“I did,” he nodded, “I did.”
So he’s not surprised at the growing anticipation from a victory-starved Junior Nation that is desperately hoping Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway is going to be another display of, to borrow from Earnhardt’s personal vocabulary, “awesomeness.”
Earnhardt, fresh off an eighth-place finish in Monday’s rescheduled race at Texas, is tempering the expectations. Performance is as much about skill as it is the quality of race car, and Earnhardt said the rules package leaves him at the mercy of his No. 88 Chevrolet.
“You can’t be aggressive when you’re going backward,” he said. “You can’t be aggressive when you’re sitting there trying to hang on. When the car’s good, I can do that, and I’m willing to do that. I get fired up and see opportunities and see the win standing there in front of me, and I can get aggressive. Every driver is that way when they smell that opportunity.”
But when the car is only mediocre?
“Beating on everybody ain’t going to do nothing but make you a bunch of enemies. So you’ve just got to ride it out,” he said. “When you’re playing offense all day long? It’s easy to look cool and drive on the edge and get everybody up on their feet. But when you’re just hanging on and trying not to wreck and stay out of everybody’s way, it’s difficult to be aggressive and wild and flashy or whatever.”
Earnhardt must rebound from last year’s embarrassing campaign, when he finished 25th in the final standings at the same time his Hendrick Motorsports teammates swept the top three spots. He was winless, had just five top-10s and went into the offseason as the top priority for team owner Rick Hendrick.
Eight races into this year, he’s already grabbed three top-10 finishes and is seventh in the standings.
Still, his winless streak has stretched to 65 races, dating back to Michigan in June 2008.