In Earnhardt's case, it's about more than one win
By David Caraviello, NASCAR.COM
May 09, 2012 3:19 PM, EDT
With every passing week, the tension mounts. As one Sprint Cup race shifts into another, the anxiety and the eagerness and the expectation are compounded, to the point where it seems impossible and inevitable all at the same time. Dale Earnhardt's Jr.'s epic winless streak is going to end, sometime. He's running too well, too often, for it not to. And yet until it does, that combination of fretfulness and anticipation is always going to be there, rising a little higher in the throats of race fans until, miracle of miracles, the No. 88 car actually pulls into Victory Lane.
And then what happens? Jubilation, of course. The citizens of Junior Nation whooping and hugging in the grandstands or in front of their television sets. Spraying of champagne, shooting of confetti, photos with team members wearing lots of different hats. If history is any indication, a candid and heart-on-the-sleeve interview session in the media center. Relief, in many different corners. And then the driver will fly home, and the car will be packed up into the transporter, and they'll try to do it again the next weekend -- which, as we all know, is where the real difficulty comes into play.
Then and now
Earnhardt through 10 races
Winning is what this sport is all about, of course, but a single victory can be a fleeting thing. A win at one track guarantees nothing the next weekend, particularly given how drastically different the venues can be from one Sunday afternoon to another. There's winning, and then there's building on winning, which is a completely different -- and unquestionably more arduous -- endeavor altogether. Just ask Regan Smith, who hoped to take the next step after his breakthrough victory in last season's Southern 500, but instead returns to Darlington Raceway this weekend in a points position only moderately improved from where he was 12 months ago.
No question, a race victory can bring celebration and relief and renewed confidence, but ultimately it is a moment that begins to fade as the next race week dawns. Which brings us back to Earnhardt, and the breathless anticipation over that looming, streak-busting victory, and how misguided it all seems in relation to what he's doing on the race track. No question, Dale Jr. fans -- not to mention the driver himself -- are more than ready to shed the yoke of a skid that now numbers 139 races, and stretches back nearly four years. But in truth, the hard part is being in position to win every week. The hard part is what Earnhardt and his team are doing right now, and it's getting overshadowed because breaks and circumstances haven't gone their way at the end.
Because let's be honest -- to some degree, we've seen this movie before. Although it's not as interminable as the current one, Earnhardt was mired in a 76-race winless skid when he arrived at Michigan International Speedway in the summer of 2008. He won on fuel mileage, and fans in the Irish Hills celebrated as if the Berlin Wall had just come down. People were out of their minds with happiness as the out-of-gas No. 88 was pushed down pit road toward Victory Lane. Earnhardt was equally as pleased to have scored his first victory for Hendrick Motorsports. "It's a pretty big day for me," the driver said then, clearly happy to shed the weight of the winless streak, regardless of how it had ended.
And now here we are, three years and nearly 11 months later, still waiting on the next one. Earnhardt stood third in points after that Michigan victory, the same position he's in now, but the team couldn't keep it going and he limped home to a last-place finish in the Chase. Two extremely difficult seasons followed, both of them marked by points finishes in the 20s. The streak-buster outside the Motor City had been a mirage. Victories by nature raise hope and expectation, but they don't help you once the transporters roll into a new track the next Friday morning. One of the most sought-after victories of Earnhardt's career was followed by some of his toughest times behind the wheel. In time, the unfulfilled promise of that day in Michigan seemed almost as much a burden as the winless skid itself.
So here we are again, awaiting the end of another, much longer, streak, that focus on a single victory obscuring the real progress being made. Although Earnhardt's statistics this season are quite comparable to those from the early part of 2008 -- he has one more top-10 finish through 10 races, occupies the same points position, and led far more laps then -- what we're seeing now is actually a continuation of last season, when Little E broke back into the Chase and showed signs of once again becoming the contender he is now. This is sustained performance built upon sustained performance, the most difficult thing to achieve in all of auto racing. Smith, Paul Menard, Marcos Ambrose, David Ragan, Trevor Bayne and Kurt Busch are among those who won races last year. Earnhardt did not. Who at this point is better off?
It's more about winning than individual wins, and those two have less in common than it might first appear. The latter does not always guarantee the former, as we've seen time and time again. And yet even as Junior compiles top-10 after top-10, getting the kind of finishes it may not take to win races but it does take to contend for championships, the angst will continue until that winless streak number is reduced to zero. There was much hope last weekend at Talladega, but the draft proved too capricious. Darlington shapes up as an unlikely candidate, given Earnhardt's rather uneven track record there, but last season showed unusual things can happen on this surface. Hendrick has more victories at the Lady in Black than any other active organization, but its quest for win No. 200 has been derailed by a 16-race skid that's the team's longest since Jimmie Johnson won his first career Cup race in the spring of 2002 to snap a 17-race drought.
So there are all kinds of winless streaks at play heading back to the Pee Dee region of South Carolina, even though Hendrick cars are fast almost every week and Earnhardt has shown himself to be a frontrunner almost everywhere the circuit has visited to this point. Should his mark be pushed to 140 after Saturday night, all eyes will eagerly look ahead two weeks to the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where a year ago Earnhardt led off the final corner before running out of gas. The count continues, the numbers as large and obvious as the clock face on Big Ben. So does the construction of a championship contender, even if it goes unnoticed.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.