LONG POND, Pa. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. needed an extreme makeover to shake up his sagging career. New shop. New crew chief. New team.
Now comes the best part for NASCAR’s most popular driver.
His winless drought is stuck on 106 races entering Pocono Raceway and the three-year mark of his last victory is closing in. Earnhardt, though, might finally have his career back on track after a string of underachieving seasons at Hendrick Motorsports.
His next win, especially if it comes soon, won’t be a stunner because he’s been one of the hottest drivers in the sport, boosting both his morale and his spot in the standings.
“We’re not satisfied. We want to win races,” Earnhardt said Friday. “I know those guys are itching to win and get into Victory Lane.”
He’s getting close to grabbing the checkered flag.
Earnhardt thought he was going to win at Martinsville Speedway until Kevin Harvick passed him with four laps left for the win. He settled for second, which started a string of three top-10 finishes. Then came heartbreak at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He led on the final lap before his gas tank ran dry and finished seventh. Last week at Kansas, another second, giving him seven top 10s this season — one fewer than his 36-race total from a year ago.
Earnhardt has battled the frustration of being so close to taking the checkered flag with the pride of knowing he’s running at the front of the pack. He has not won since Michigan in June 2008, his first season with Hendrick Motorsports.
He was 12th in the standings that year, then finished 21st last year and 25th in 2009.
In any other sport, those kind of results can get you booed out of town.
But Earnhardt’s legion of diehards have never wavered in their support even as he slumped, and few sounds in sports can match the roar from the stands when No. 88 zooms into the lead.
They all have reason to cheer this year.
Earnhardt pointed to all the changes at Hendrick for the reason he’s third in the points race. His partnership with crew chief Steve Letarte, who previously called the shots for Jeff Gordon, has been an instant success. When the car does struggle or they fall a lap behind, they still find a way to keep the race from completely getting out of hand.
“I feel like it’s a good relationship and going pretty good,” Earnhardt said. “Just trying to protect it and keep it going that way.”
Team owner Rick Hendrick has long tried to find the right formula to make Earnhardt as successful — or least in the same league — as teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.
Earnhardt remains upbeat that his first win in three years is on the way.
“It’s great, it’s not frustrating,” he said. “I’m running good. That’s great. It’s where you want to be. Close. It’s not winning. It’s better than running damn 25th and 30th every week, I’ll tell you that.”
He’s not satisfied, though. Earnhardt knows he has to win a race for fans and critics to believe he’s really a contender.
Breaking through this weekend might prove he’s for real. He’s 0-for-Pocono — Earnhardt has five top-fives in 22 races on the 2½-mile triangle track. But he hasn’t finished better than 12th and has three finishes in the 20s in his last five races at Long Pond, Pa.
“We’ve had a lot of good runs, but the last couple of years haven’t been that awesome,” Earnhardt said.
If not Sunday, maybe next week at Michigan. His last win came there on June 15, 2008.
Earnhardt has to believe his time to celebrate is near.
“I don’t know that I’ve been the kind of person to be certain about anything,” he said. “I’m not an assuming kind of person. I probably never felt that way.”
NASCAR NOTEBOOK: Clint Bowyer started on the pole and led wire-to-wire for his first victory in Tony Stewart’s dirt-track charity race Wednesday night at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio. Twenty-eight drivers, including 17 from the NASCAR Sprint Cup series, competed in late-model stock cars in the 30-lap event that benefited children’s hospitals in Atlanta, Dallas, St. Louis and Charlotte, N.C. “It means a lot to me,” said Bowyer, who owns a dirt-track team and the car he drove. “It’s just so much fun. There’s not one person here in this whole infield that just doesn’t have a huge smile on their face. It all goes toward such a great cause.” Bowyer, who is ninth in the Sprint Cup standings, was pursued around the half-mile oval by second-place finisher J.J. Yeley for the entire race. Aric Almirola finished third and was followed by Kyle Busch and Justin Allgaier. The event has raised more than $3 million for various charities since its inception in 2005. “It’s guys like Clint that make this work,” said Stewart, who has owned Eldora since 2004.