At Michigan

Owner, Pocono boost confidence for Earnhardt Jr.

jutter@charlotteobserver.comJune 16, 2013 

NASCAR Michigan Auto Racing

Driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., prepares for a practice session for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup series auto race at Michigan International Speedway Friday, June 14, 2013, in Brooklyn, Mich. (AP Photo/Bob Brodbeck)

BOB BRODBECK — AP

— It’s time again for the spring Sprint Cup Series race at Michigan International Speedway and that means one thing – it’s the only place NASCAR’s most popular driver has won over the past six years.

Strangely enough, Dale Earnhardt Jr. – once known as a restrictor-plate ace for his propensity to win Talladega (Ala.) and in Daytona Beach, Fla. – is in good position to earn his third series victory at the 2-mile oval.

“That is going to be more important to be able to repeat and get the win this weekend,” said Earnhardt, who will start 12th in Sunday’s Quicken Loans 400.

“We feel pretty good coming in to this race. We had a great run last week (at Pocono in Long Pond, Pa.) that sort of hopefully got us back in the right direction.”

It was just a year ago Earnhardt went to Victory Lane at Michigan and snapped his career-worst 143-race winless streak which had started after a June 2008 win at – you guessed it – Michigan.

Earnhardt and his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team left the track last June 17 second in points, with plenty of momentum and hopes of more victories to follow.

Earnhardt eventually went on to lead the points last season for two weeks, but he never won again. In fact, he sat out two races during the Chase while recovering from a pair of concussions and ended up 12th in the standings.

No reminders were needed this weekend that it had been a year since Earnhardt last visited Victory Lane.

“We want to win more races. We want to win numerous races and multiple races in a season. We want that to be the status quo … what is expected,” he said.

“When we first started working together we were trying to figure out how to get a 15th-place combination into the top 10 and we were happy when we did. Now when we run in the top 10, it’s just another weekend and what do we have to do to win.

“That is how we feel.”

Team owner Rick Hendrick said he never fathomed Earnhardt would be returning to the site of last year’s victory without more wins in tow.

“Not with the way Dale and (crew chief Steve Letarte) had been running last year,” Hendrick said. “Dale missed two races with the concussion, but even after the concussion they picked it right back up.

“This year, again, they had a really good start. You take out the blown motor at Charlotte and I think he’s had a heck of run.

“If we continue to run like we did at Pocono last week, he’s going to win some races. I think his day is right around the corner.”

Hendrick is cognizant such predictions have been made before.

“This sport is so competitive these days. All you have to do is look at the guys who haven’t won in a long time or have had droughts,” he said. “It’s just really hard to close the deal.

“I’m real confident in the team and I think he’s going to be a real factor in the Chase. I think he’s going to win before the Chase and coincidence or not, I think he’s a real threat to win Michigan.”

Still with no Cup championship on his resume, Earnhardt, 38, bristles at the thought his “window of opportunity” is closing.

“I’m not burning out. I think that the passion and the commitment probably goes before the physical end of it goes in this particular sport. I feel like I’m in the best opportunity of my career,” he said.

“There is a seize-the-moment kind of feeling because I’m in such good equipment around such good people.”

With 12 races left before the 12-driver Chase field is set, Earnhardt sits in good position this year. He is fourth in the standings, 82 behind leader and teammate Jimmie Johnson.

In fact, Hendrick said he believes Earnhardt is performing better at this point of the season than one year ago.

“In a lot ways I think the organization is about the same as it was last year, but I think he’s better,” Hendrick said.

Earnhardt said he appreciates Hendrick’s evaluation because it is difficult to put things in perspective looking from within the team.

“It’s more difficult to see growth and improvement within the team when you are part of the team. It’s kind of like when you are a kid and you are getting taller,” Earnhardt explained.

“You are 10, 11, 12 years old and you are wanting to be 6-foot-3 one day, (but) you can’t tell you are getting taller unless you are marking the door jam. Otherwise, you wouldn’t notice any change of height.

“That is kind of what it feels like when you are part of the team.”

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