|05/11/12 09:14AM||, Dale Jr., Greg Biffle, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth|
No win, no problem for Earnhardt Jr.
Hendrick driver focused on consistency, not 139-race winless streak
By Viv Bernstein, Special to NASCAR.COM
May 07, 2012 3:40 PM, EDT
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- With each race he runs and each top-10 performance he delivers in this resurgent season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. can't help but raise the hopes and expectations of a legion of fans desperate to see him finally make it back to Victory Lane.
After 138 races without a win, a run of nearly four years, a sense of destiny followed Earnhardt to Talladega Superspeedway for Sunday's Aaron's 499.
Junior's winless streak
* June 15, 2008, at Michigan (15th race of the season)
Why not here? Why not now? Earnhardt used to own restrictor-plate racing, after all. And he arrived having finished in the top 10 the past five races and seven of nine overall this season. Earnhardt was running as well as ever. He even had climbed to a close second in the points standings, a mere five back of Greg Biffle going into Sunday. There was talk Earnhardt could end the streak and take the points lead all at once.
It would have been glorious. If only.
But when the race was done, Brad Keselowski was standing in Victory Lane. Once again, Earnhardt had come close enough to make his fans believe he could win -- and maybe will win -- someday. But not Sunday.
With a ninth-place finish, Earnhardt delivered his sixth consecutive top-10 performance. As for the other streak? That's now 139 and counting.
Earnhardt was as high as first and as low as 31st. He led 10 laps in the first half of the race and appeared to be a contender. But he dropped back in the field in the second half. Although Earnhardt avoided the multiple multi-car crashes, he did not have a shot to win in the end.
"We just didn't have a great car,'' Earnhardt said. "We've got all the tools; we just really didn't bring the best package here. Good engine. We have all the tools. It ain't nothing anybody at the shop did. Between me and Steve, we can do a better job."
But Earnhardt hardly seemed disappointed. He now has eight top-10 finishes in 10 races so far, more than any other Sprint Cup driver this season and as many as he had in 2010. He had only five top-10s in 2009.
"Yes, this is definitely the most consistent we've ever been, or I've ever been,'' said Earnhardt, who slipped ever-so-slightly in the standings to third place, nine points back of Biffle, who finished fifth, and two behind Matt Kenseth, who was third. "I have a great team, and they give me great cars.
"I knew there would be a lot of wrecks [Sunday]. I didn't have enough car to get up in there to stay ahead of the wrecks like we did [in the Nationwide Series race Saturday]. I just kind of had to play it a little too safe. It worked out, and we ended up getting a finish and not tore up and on the hook. I'm really happy with the team, and Steve's doing a great job."
Earnhardt had downplayed some of the Talladega hype going into the race, although he acknowledged that the return of pack racing -- instead of the two-car tandems that had been prevalent in recent races -- certainly favored his style. Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon didn't have to think too hard when asked how fans might react if Earnhardt had won at a track where his name is revered.
"I think we all know what that would be like," Gordon said before the race. "When he does something great here, you could be a mile away from here and you know it."
In the end, Earnhardt didn't have the race car to do it. But in truth, Earnhardt thinks that elusive win is likely to come elsewhere. He said as much Saturday.
And where did he think his best shot might be? How about Darlington Raceway, where the Cup Series heads for Saturday night's Southern 500.
"I'm kind of looking forward to going to Darlington and back to race tracks where the car handles because we're having such a good year,'' Earnhardt said. "It's not a slight on Talladega, but we're having such a good year at all these tracks, and the cars are driving so much better over time, even from last year, the cars are better. I'm kind of looking forward to other tracks as well."
Let the hype begin. Again.