Dale Earnhardt Jr. is on the verge of ending his 137 race winless streak, not only by running consistently well all season, but by factoring in his renewed confidence and attitude about racing with Hendrick Motorsports. Could this Saturday’s race at Richmond be the night he captures his first win since June 2008 and the 200th win for team owner, Rick Hendrick? I am placing my bet on Junior to bring it on home. His finishes at Richmond are impressive, 3 wins, 8 top 5 and 10 top 10 finishes. With Steve Letart in his second year as Earnhardt’s crew chief, his average finish so far in 2012 is 8th place. The odds are in his favor if you weigh in his attitude, which for the most part, remains optimistic, positive and even slightly cocky. Nothing wrong with cocky if you can back it up with a little action and a big win.
Jr. has got the right attitude, no doubt about that, and he has swagger to spare. He was recently quoted as saying that he considers himself to be the best driver at Hendrick Motorsports, an organization featuring five- time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and four- time champion Jeff Gordon. “Johnson is a hell of a race car driver, but I feel like I’m the best,” Earnhardt said. “I think that’s the way you have to feel. I feel that I’m smarter than everybody and I can drive better than everybody, and I know a lot of people ain’t going to agree with that, but I feel pretty strong about it.”
Lately, Dale Jr. has been the best driver at Hendrick . Jeff Gordon and newcomer Kasey Kahne have been struggling this year, ranking 18th and 26th respectively, while Johnson has seemed to have lost some of his championship vapor. Earnhardt, meanwhile, is just 21 points behind points leader Greg Biffle.
“The season has been going pretty good,” Earnhardt said. “We’ve been real consistent and running well each week. Just haven’t really had that breakout race yet. We feel pretty good about what’s been happening and how things have been going for us.”
Positive attitude aside, however, the fact remains that Earnhardt’s last win came at Michigan on June 15, 2008. His last win before that came, ironically, in Richmond on May 6, 2006. He’s come close to winning this year, and after finishing seventh Sunday at Kansas, he was told the team looks to be on the verge of that “breakout race.”
“We are,” he responded simply.
“The car was fun to drive and we’ve had a great weekend…. We’ve just got to get a little bit more to get to where we can try to win some races. We are close.”
Hendrick Motorsports, even with all the talent and resources available, has not won a race since Johnson did it last October. Each of Hendrick’s drivers is feeling the pressure to be the one to win the 200th race for Rick Hendrick.
“Well, you want to win for Rick [Hendrick] and for yourself and your team,” Earnhardt admitted. “Everybody here needs a win for one reason or another. We’re all working really hard. I’m not really focusing on it or honing in on it too heavily. You’ve just got to think about what your car is doing and what you need to do to help your car, and make your car faster and the wins eventually take care of themselves.”
“You have to be around a long time I guess,” Earnhardt said of 200. “I think it says a lot about your ability to put people in the right place, how you can manage people, your ability to hand-pick people and seek qualities in people and where they need to be to help the company. … That’s how you win large, large chunks of races like that.”
Earnhardt has regained a lot of the confidence he lost in 2009 and 2010, when he was filled with self-doubt, questioning his passion and desire to even be in the sport. The passion and desire have always been there, in my opinion, but his renewed confidence in himself and the team that surrounds him has placed him squarely on the path to victory lane. It’s just a matter of time, and I don’t think we will have too much of a wait.