By The Associated Press
TALLADEGA, Ala. – The streak is now at 138.
Thousands and thousands of miles on the NASCAR bump-and-grind, spinning around without a victory. That’s a lot of heavy baggage to wheel around if your last name is Earnhardt.
But he is in Talladega now, with creature comforts all around. They includes memories of coming here as a kid with his father, marveling at the bigness of it all and the cars thundering along the super-speedway.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has built his own memories now. He has won five times here in 24 races, including 12 Top 10s. The buzz builds for the Aaron’s 499 Sunday afternoon. Will this be the day Earnhardt finally gets off the schneid, or will it just be another notch etched in futility?
“When we go to Talladega or Daytona, I do feel like those races are…I feel like I have a good chance of winning every time I go because there are less variables,” Earnhardt said prior to qualifying Saturday. ” The cars don’t handle; you just hold it on the mat. You just have to make good decisions…. I feel like my confidence goes up when I come here.”
Earnhardt will start 18th in the grid Sunday. Teammate Jeff Gordon captured his 71st career pole (191.623) followed by A.J. Allmendinger (191.111).
Earnhardt’s confidence has been amped up most of this season. He is having one of his better years on the Cup circuit. Earnhardt is second in points, with four Top 5 and seven Top 10s in nine races. It’s his best start since 2008.
There are a lot of factors in play, of course: The well-built machines of Hendrick Motorsports, better chemistry with crew chief Steve Letarte, and the calm confidence of Earnhardt.
Earnhardt has been voted NASCAR’s most popular driver nine consecutive years. During that same span, there’s been almost as many fans screaming that Earnhardt is nothing more than a fortunate son who would be working at Jiffy Lube if it wasn’t for his last name.
He gets all of that, and has dealt with it as a consummate professional. He is mindful of the losing streak, but not obsessed by it.
“I would love to win this race on Sunday, but if our next win happens to come at a track where you’ve really got to wheel on it and get around the corner and hustle the car a lot, that would probably, personally, mean a bit more to me just because of the circumstances of how we haven’t won in a long time,” Earnhardt Jr. said. ” And I guess what the critics’ opinion would be, should we win here and break the streak. Obviously it’s a plate track and go win somewhere else and prove to us really that you’ve got it all turned around, I guess. I don’t know. But that kind of is in the back of your mind a little bit.”
Earnhardt came close to winning here last year for the first time since 2004, when he pushed teammate Jimmie Johnson to the front and across the finish line in a frantic three-wide photo finish. Johnson returned the favor by getting Earnhardt a pallet of Schlitz beer (Earnhardt’s request).
But that was back when tandem-racing was the rage. Sunday should see the usual big-pack racing scrum, which favors Earnhardt, who detests tandem racing.
“I think that the chemistry Junior and I both have, that our shop has, it was just another example of how strong that chemistry is and how much it continues to grow,” Johnson said. ” I’m very happy to see how fast the No. 88 car has been week-in and week-out. Naturally, you think of him as a favorite here at this race track, but that No. 88 has been pretty strong everywhere. He is rising to be a favorite everywhere we go.”