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Earnhardt creeping closer to ending drought

April 12, 2012, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com



Earnhardt creeping closer to ending drought
FORT WORTH, Texas -- Earnhardt feels like he's creeping ever closer to finally ending 135-race drought

Texas Motor Speedway has been a special place to Dale Earnhardt Jr. from his very first race here. That April afternoon in 2000 brought not only his first victory in NASCAR's premier series, but also the realization that yes indeed, he could make a successful livelihood at the top level of his sport.

"You're just really relieved, because you want to race cars for a living, and you want to be good at it," Earnhardt said Thursday. "You don't want to struggle your whole life. So winning that first race cracks that mold away from all that and gives you a little more clear vision on what your future might be. Because there are so many unknowns and worry. ... You want to be a part of it so bad. This is what I wanted. I wanted to drive cars all these years and be a part of it like I have. But before that, before that moment, you didn't know if that was going to happen and work out for you."

"We're getting closer. I feel like we're getting closer. I don't really know what the measuring stick is, but hopefully it's real close."

--DALE EARNHARDT JR.

It did work out, that day in Fort Worth a dozen years ago spawning a career that to this point has netted 18 victories on what is now known as the Sprint Cup tour. Now Earnhardt is back in Texas, this time with fewer doubts about his future and plenty of confidence in his potential, and perhaps on the verge of a breakthrough that would be even more seismic than his maiden voyage to Victory Lane all those seasons ago.

Earnhardt stands second in points after back-to-back third-place finishes. With 10 top-10s in 19 starts, Texas is a track where he historically runs very well. It all prompts a natural question -- is this the week that his 135-race winless streak, which now encompasses parts of five seasons, finally comes to an end?

"We're getting closer. I feel like we're getting closer," Earnhardt said. "I don't really know what the measuring stick is, but hopefully it's real close. I'm ready to win. I'm ready to go to Victory Lane. I've been working with these guys, and they're working so hard. They're giving me really, really good cars. They deserve to win races. I think the team deserves it. Ready to make that happen. We're just going to keep trying. We're getting closer, though. That's the bright spot."

That much is obvious, given that Earnhardt stands just six points behind series leader Greg Biffle, has finished third or better in half of the races so far this season and is behind the wheel of contending race cars each and every week. Things are going so well for NASCAR's most popular driver that this past off weekend felt like a month. He couldn't wait to get to Texas, to get back in his No. 88 car, to be back around crew chief Steve Letarte and his Hendrick Motorsports teammates. These days, the races can't come fast enough for Earnhardt, who sees each one as a chance to record his first victory since Michigan in the summer of 2008.

"I just know that I enjoy what I'm doing, and I enjoy the season that we're having, and I like going to the race track with the team I'm working with and the way things are going," he said. "It's my favorite thing. It's what I want to do. When I'm not doing that, that's what I want to be doing. Taking a week off is always a good time. We always make a good time out of it and have fun. ... But the races just can't come quick enough for us. I'm enjoying working, I'm enjoying racing. I feel like we're gaining on getting to Victory Lane, so obviously you want the races to come as fast as they can come so you can gain closer and closer and try to win us a race."

The improvement in the No. 88 team, which finished seventh in final points last season after a pair of campaigns in the 20s, isn't lost on the rest of the garage. Matt Kenseth, Earnhardt's friend from their days racing one another in what's now the Nationwide Series, says he's seeing more of Earnhardt these days both off the track and on. Just like old times, they're racing for position more often near the front, and Kenseth is enjoying it as much now as he did then.

"He has been running really well, and we have gotten to race for position and stuff like that. For me, that is really fun," said Kenseth, who stands fourth in points. "It has been a long time now, but we used to race for wins and tried to run with him for championships in the Busch Series and stuff. We moved up to Cup the same year and raced for Rookie of the Year and wins and stuff. It is so competitive in this series that sometimes you might go a couple months without racing each other. It has been enjoyable to be around him on the track more. I think the better you run, that everybody gains confidence."

Earnhardt's confidence seems to be increasing with every passing week. He gave eventual winner Kenseth a run in the final laps of the Daytona 500. He led 70 laps at Las Vegas. He was in the mix in the end at Martinsville. Almost every week, Earnhardt is in position -- and sooner or later, it seems, the drought-buster will arrive.

"Now that he is running in the top five every week and leading laps and doing the things he is doing," Kevin Harvick said, "it's just a matter of all the stuff falling together."

Watch Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s season highlights below: