Earnhardt building toward breakthrough
Apr 3, 2012
ARGH! Why did there have to be an off weekend this week on the Sprint Cup schedule?
I mean, you can just feel it – the momentum building, the anticipation and the excitement that the end is near.
Of course, I'm talking about Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s 135-race winless streak. Given the way the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet has been running for much of the first six races of the 2012 season, it's only a matter of time before Junior finally reaches victory lane on the Cup circuit for the first time since mid-2008.
Following his third-place finish at Martinsville this past Sunday – his second third-place outing in as many weeks – Junior is as prime for a win as a ripe banana: he's bursting at the seams to break out and have the fruits of his labor be enjoyed.
Without question, Earnhardt is off to one of the best starts of his 13-year Cup career. Even some of his most diehard and longtime fans may have a hard time realizing that in the season's first six races, Earnhardt has three top-5 finishes, one top-10 and no finish lower than 15th.
Ever since he finished runner-up in the season-opening Daytona 500, Earnhardt has shown that the ignominy and frustration his fans have endured over the last five-plus years is ready to come to an end. All he needs now is to cross the finish line first ahead of the 42 other guys.
And trust me, it's going to happen.
But for his suffering fans, not soon enough. That's why I rue the fact there is no Sprint Cup race this coming weekend. Sure, it's Easter and a time to spend with family, but I and many more like me are so chomping at the bit to see the No. 88 in victory lane.
I'm not fawning nor have I suddenly developed a king sized man-crush on Junior. Rather, I'm just being realistic and predicting the inevitable is at hand. I can just sense it, feel it.
Over the last year or so, I've said several times that Junior was going to win a race. Entering the 2011 season, I boldly went out on a limb and predicted that Earnhardt would not only make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, but that he'd also finish in the top-5 by season's end (okay, I was close, he ultimately finished seventh, still his best season finish since he ended up fifth in 2006).
You have to admit, Earnhardt has been close several times in the last 40-plus races dating back to the start of the 2011 campaign. Last season, he finished second at Martinsville and Kansas (both in the spring) and started the Chase with a third-place finish at Chicago.
Then, thus far this season, he has one runner-up and two other third-place finishes.
But each time it has looked like Junior was finally going to win, he ultimately came up short yet again.
So this time, I'm going to go out on a real limb: I'm going to g-u-a-r-a-n-t-e-e Junior wins a race and breaks his long winless streak to an end within the next three upcoming races.
It could be next week at Texas, once the series resumes – and not to mention the site of Junior's first Cup triumph in 2000. Coincidentally, that win was on April 2 of the first year of the new century, not to mention it was the seventh race of the season that year, just like next week's visit to Texas Motor Speedway will be the seventh race of the current campaign.
Wouldn't it be fitting for Earnhardt to break the longest winless streak of his career at the same place where he won the first of his now 18 to-date wins on the Cup circuit?
How many of us will never forget the joy and jubilation we witnessed in victory lane at Texas when Junior's father, the late Dale Earnhardt, wrapped his young son in a bear hug and was nearly brought to tears at his offspring's first taste of Cup success.
I remember that day quite well, as I was there and watched it all happen in-person. I also recall thinking to myself at the time that this could be the start of a tremendous career for a young kid who carried the nickname "Little E" (speaking of which, how come so few people call him that anymore … but I digress).
Texas would be a great place for Junior to win, no doubt. So would the following race at Kansas.
But if he fails to do so at either track, I absolutely, positively, take it to the bank guarantee (kind of my back-up plan, you might say) that he'll win at Richmond – where he's won three Cup races in his career, second-most of any track on the circuit – on April 28.
One way or other, Earnhardt will not get out of the month of April without a win and breaking his now infamous losing streak. Mark my word.
And if he wins at Richmond, what better place to go to next on the schedule than the race the following week, the same place where Earnhardt has enjoyed the greatest and most frequent success of his early career, namely Talladega (May 6) and the five lifetime wins he has there.
If that were to happen, something tells me that after enduring such a long winless streak, I wouldn't be surprised to see Junior do a complete 180 and win maybe two, even three races in a row.
With the exception of Greg Biffle, who has led the points now for the last four weeks, no other driver has been as consistent thus far this season as Earnhardt has been.
Most definitely, the teaming of him and Steve Letarte as crew chief last season laid the foundation for where Earnhardt is at right now: ready to put the finishing touches on what the pair has been building together.
We all know Junior is due, long overdue – and the time to put an end to that winless slump is at hand.
When – not if – that happens, all may not suddenly become right with the NASCAR world, but it'll sure be a huge step in getting the old balance back, that's for sure.