Earnhardt back in Michigan, hoping for elusive win

BROOKLYN, Mich. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. tries not to worry about his winless stretch, which reached three years this week.

Of course, now that he’s back in Michigan, the site of his last victory, there’s no avoiding the questions.

“Would like to win a race,” Earnhardt said. “We’re trying to, but we don’t want to get too careless about it and start taking too many chances that are foolish.”

The date was June 15, 2008. Earnhardt’s fuel-mileage victory at Michigan International Speedway snapped a 76-race winless string shortly after he teamed up with Hendrick Motorsports. Since then, he’s raced 107 times on the Sprint Cup circuit without finishing first.

Despite all that, NASCAR’s most popular driver is a lot more upbeat these days. Although he has yet to win, he has eight top-10 finishes in 14 races this season, equaling his total for all of 2010.

He’s third in the points standings entering Sunday’s race.

“I think I’m having one of the best years I’ve ever had,” he said.

The talk of his drought will persist until Earnhardt wins a race, but at least he’s in contention now on a regular basis. Kevin Harvick passed him with four laps remaining to win at Martinsville Speedway in April. Earnhardt led on the final lap last month at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but settled for seventh after his gas tank ran dry.

He finished second in Kansas and sixth at Pocono Raceway last weekend.

Sure, it’s frustrating for his many fans, but it beats being irrelevant.

“I felt like last year and the year before that, I wasn’t competitive enough to even worry about it,” Earnhardt said. “Now this year, we’re running good, and I can think about wins, I can think about missed opportunities that we’ve had a little bit more. But they don’t bother me.”

And even if Earnhardt does win soon, he won’t be satisfied.

“One race doesn’t make a season. One win really doesn’t make a season,” he said. “We would definitely like to win several races, and I would definitely feel like we’re where we need to be, potential-wise. We’re not now. We’re getting there. We’re doing good, but we still know we can do better.”

The improvement has been obvious, especially to Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon, who won at Pocono.

“Those guys are having a spectacular season,” Gordon said. “I’ve been in that situation before where we’re having a great year, we’re up there leading the points or battling for the championship and we hadn’t won a race and that’s where the focus was. That, to me, is not right. … I think if they keep doing what they’re doing, the win will come.”

It would be fitting if it comes this weekend at MIS, where Earnhardt has five top-10 finishes in his last nine Cup races.

If not, he’ll simply move on to the next race and try to keep putting himself in position to be a factor. He finished 21st in the standings last year and 25th in 2009, but those days feel like a distant memory now, and the support from his die-hard fans remained strong all along.

“I’m glad to have people that believe in me and stuck with me.”

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