Earnhardt optimistic he can finally win Sprint title
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Dale Earnhardt Jr. stroked his shaggy beard as he searched for reasons to explain why one of NASCAR's premier restrictor-plate racers repeatedly falls short at the Daytona 500 — albeit narrowly.
Earnhardt has a combined seven wins at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway but hasn't won a restrictor-plate race since winning the Daytona 500 and Talladega's fall race 10 years ago.
It's not because of a lack of effort. Earnhardt's decade of frustration can best be defined by three second-place finishes in the Daytona 500 the past four years.
It's a remarkable letdown for a stock-car protégé who most expected to dominate the sport before six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson began his reign of supremacy in 2006. Earnhardt appeared poised to slingshot the No. 88 Chevrolet to victory in the season opener at Daytona last year before Johnson held him off on the final lap.
“Let's be honest, where I am as a driver I feel like I'm on the verge of breaking through and having possibly one of my best seasons,” Earnhardt said during the NASCAR media tour in Charlotte, N.C.
In 2013, Earnhardt put together one of his best seasons during the Chase era. He finished fifth in points to tie his career-best effort (2004 and 2006). He had eight top-10 finishes during the postseason, including runner-up finishes at Dover, Talladega and Texas.
“We ran second a lot last year, and that felt great,” said Earnhardt, who placed second five times last season. “It was a statement to us that what we're doing is working. Maybe, this is the year we turn the corner.
“It doesn't wear on me mentally, but it motivates and ticks me off. When you see videos of last year, I see everyone else (Hendrick Motorsports teammates) in those videos holding trophies and celebrating wins. The only shots of me are those of me walking around pit road.”
Crew chief Steve Letarte predicts Earnhardt will be featured prominently in the 2014 team video. Expectations for the 39-year-old Earnhardt seemingly are greater this year than when he arrived at Hendrick Motorsports in 2008 amid incalculable hype.
Letarte, who helped Earnhardt's teammate Jeff Gordon win four Cup titles, isn't looking to temper his team's enthusiasm. But he wants them to be realistic about what they can achieve, considering the competition he faces at HMS with Johnson, Gordon and Kasey Kahne.
“By no doing of his own, Junior has a persona that's bigger than any one person you can ever meet,” Letarte said. “No one can live up to what the fans want him to be. He loves the sport, and he wants to win every week. It's surprising that a guy that good hasn't won at Daytona in 10 years. But I can think of some of the close runs we've had. If he continues to put himself in position, then he'll break through.”
Like a distance runner, Earnhardt has smartly paced himself to have enough horsepower at the end in Daytona. Each time, he didn't have a strong enough kick to steer the 88 across the finish line first.
While Johnson hoisted the championship trophy last year, Earnhardt strolled to his hauler with the look of a devastated receiver who dropped the game-winning pass in NASCAR's version of the Super Bowl.
“We like to say that one out of three pigs will build a house out of bricks,” Letarte said. “Unlike stick-and-ball sports, statistics don't tell the story in auto racing. I've yet to find the right metric to measure the success of any driver — except for Jimmie Johnson.”
Earnhardt, though, knows his career will be defined by wins. With the exception of a career-best six wins in 2004, victories have been far and few between. He has won only four races in nine seasons — including his last June 17, 2012, at Michigan.
Earnhardt enters this season with hopes of winning his first Sprint Cup title. Ironically, he figures the new Chase rules, with a greater emphasis on winning, will work to his advantage.
“Maybe, the stars are aligned and fate is on our side,” Earnhardt said. “With the trajectory our team has had, we are peaking at the right time to compete for a championship. I never felt — even when they changed the Chase the first time — that they would change the format the way you wanted.
“I wasn't that excited about change up until a lot of change started happening, and you had to get used to it. A lot of times we change things for the fans, but I think the drivers are going to like this as well.”
Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.
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