DOVER, Del. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. is hoping to pick up the next memorable victory for Hendrick Motorsports.
First, Jimmie Johnson raced to owner Rick Hendrick’s 200th win. Then Kasey Kahne earned his first victory with Hendrick in the Coca-Cola 600.
Next? Well, Earnhardt brings his bewildering 141-race winless drought into Sunday’s Sprint Cup stop at Dover International Speedway.
While his teammates take turns playing hot potato with the checkered flag, Earnhardt is stuck wondering when his time will come.
“I’m not competitive on the race track with my teammates at all,” he said, “but when you see those guys win, you do wish it was you going to Victory Lane.”
He can stop the streak with his first win on Dover’s 1-mile track since 2001. Much like the overall arc of his career, his more recent runs on the concrete have been cruel. He did post a third-place finish in the May race last season, but otherwise failed to finish better than 20th in four of the last five races at Dover.
Earnhardt takes some solace in the fact he’s been consistently strong this season and is parked in fourth place in the points standings. He has two runner-up finishes in the No. 88 and nine top 10s in 12 races – after he had 12 top 10s all of last season.
The cable channel Speed posted, “Dale Jr. inching closer to first win this season,” during Friday’s Cup practice.
He’s getting close.
But no one connected with the sport has to tell Earnhardt close is not enough. He has to win.
Earnhardt has dissected the streak over the last four years and knows everything from bad luck to strategy to ability have played a role in keeping his career win total stuck on 18 since 2008. Earnhardt, who had the third-best speed at 155.966 mph in Friday’s final practice, boasts the confidence of a champion this season because of the strong finishes, great cars, and a healthy relationship with crew chief Steve Letarte.
Plus, he’s the top Hendrick driver in the standings. Earnhardt is 18 points behind leader Greg Biffle, Johnson is fifth, Kahne 15th and Jeff Gordon 22nd – not quite the Hendrick dominance that’s often expected from a sterling organization with 201 wins in their rearview mirror.
Earnhardt sees this season as the one where he can make a serious run at winning his first championship.