CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It has been almost four years since Dale Earnhardt Jr. won a Sprint Cup Series race.
There have been flashes of hope in the humbling drought, and with each one, his rabid fan base holds it breath and prays for that elusive victory. Off to another solid start to the season, there is reason to believe a win could be close.
Maybe even this weekend.
Earnhardt goes into Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway riding a stretch of five straight top-10 finishes, and his second-place finish at Richmond on Saturday night moved him to second in the series standings.
“The team is confident, we’re feeling good,” Earnhardt said. “Really close to winning a race.”
Lest anyone forget, he’s pretty good at Talladega, too.
Earnhardt has five career wins at the Alabama track, none since 2004, but he pushed teammate Jimmie Johnson to the win there last April while sacrificing his own shot at a victory. Earnhardt settled for second, and he was second in this year’s season-opening Daytona 500, a restrictor-plate race just like Talladega.
Working in his favor is that NASCAR spent most of the offseason trying to break up the two-car tandem style of racing that had dominated plate races the last two years. Earnhardt hated tandem racing, hated having his fate in the hands of a drafting partner, and never tried to hide his feelings.
“I feel like the style of racing we had in the Daytona 500 this year suits me better; I feel more confident in that style than I do the tandem,” he said. “The tandem is difficult to really commit with someone all day long. Knowing if you are going to work together and you are going to be going for the win off the corner, you are going to have to split it between the two of you one way or the other. You are going to run second or you might win.
“It is just difficult to really grasp that and feel like that is racing to you.”
The pack was broken up at Daytona, and Earnhardt had an opportunity to chase down winner Matt Kenseth on his own. Even though he failed, he liked controlling his own destiny.
“Looking out for number one and my team all day long, trying to do whatever I can to put myself in position to win the race, that is really what I feel like I have been doing all my life,” he said. “To do anything different just doesn’t feel comfortable. It feels odd to me.”
Alas, he’s not sure the finish this Sunday will play out the same way. Teams still believe that tandem racing is the fastest way to get around the track, and despite the regulations NASCAR has imposed to prevent two drivers from hooking up and pushing each other, Earnhardt believes teams will still try to find a way circumvent the restrictions.
“Every team in the garage will work toward the same goal and that is to get it back to the tandem, because that is the fastest way to go,” he said.
Even without the tandem, Earnhardt would never think he is running well enough to guarantee his 138-race winless streak will come to an end at Talladega. The race can change quickly, and a driver’s day can end in a multi-car crash started by someone else.
“There’s too many variables going into races at Talladega,” he said, “whether you feel confident winning or not.”
But, the key is that Earnhardt is confident right now and with good reason. Hendrick Motorsports and crew chief Steve Letarte are giving him good cars, and Earnhardt has seven top-10 finishes in nine races this season. His worst finish was 15th at Bristol, and he’s got a pair of second-place finishes and a pair of third-place finishes.
He’s feeling so good that he recently said he thinks he is the best driver at Hendrick, an organization that boasts five-time champion Johnson, four-time champion Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne, who like Earnhardt does not have a Cup title.
He’s not backing down from that idea, mainly because he has to believe that way to win again.
“All the drivers in the garage feel like they are the best individually, and they should. That is kind of the way you have to approach it,” he said. “I learned a long time ago that if you don’t have confidence in your car that can be problematic for you. If you don’t have confidence in your crew chief, then that can be problematic for you, and if you don’t have the same confidence in yourself, it’s not conducive to being successful.
“You have to feel like you’re here and you’re the best and that is the way you should feel. In any profession, you have to have that kind of confidence.”