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Year in Review: Earnhardt broke 143-race winless streak with victory at Michigan

December 03, 2012, Mark Aumann, NASCAR.com

Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrates snapping his 143-race winless streak with his victory at Michigan in June. (Getty Images)

Year in Review: Earnhardt broke 143-race winless streak with victory at Michigan

Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Christmas wish list provides a bit of insight as to how his life is changing: He's hoping for new running shoes, cutting boards and a set of kitchen knives.

At 38, Junior realizes sitting on the couch and playing video games all day isn't particularly productive.

"My body's changing and I'm starting to think, 'Man, I need to get up and start doing something active,' " Earnhardt said last week in Las Vegas. "I've been trying to work out a lot more. And I enjoy cooking. I've always enjoyed cooking."

" It's been a good year, but we want to be a lot better than this. I'm not ready to stop trying to be better."

--DALE EARNHARDT JR.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

2012 Statistics
WinsFirst 26Final 10
Top-Fives100
Top-10s173
Poles10
DNF's00*
Laps Led34018
Avg. Start15.016.6
Avg. Finish9.913.8

Some of that new-found maturity may have to do with the calendar, but Junior readily admits the events of this past summer gave him time to re-evaluate his career and his lifestyle choices, of what Earnhardt considers "normal" and how to continue to make time for the things he loves doing.

That seemed the furthest thing from his mind when he began experiencing headaches from a pair of accidents that left him with two concussions within a six-week span, the second coming in a last-lap melee at Talladega.

Doctors suggested he sit out a couple of races to let his brain heal -- which guaranteed Junior wouldn't win a long-sought Cup championship in 2012 -- but once he came to grips with the seriousness of the situation, Earnhardt realized the long-term consequences outweighed the short-term disappointment.

"I definitely take it more seriously now after everything I've learned," Earnhardt said after returning to the track at Martinsville. "I'm glad I did what I did. I hate the attention that it got, and hate kind of being in front of you guys talking about it. But, I'm glad it did what I did. I'm glad I took the time off and made the choices that I made.

"They were hard to make, but I had to do it. I had to do it. I didn't have a choice. I knew something wasn't right. You can't ignore concussions. It's really dangerous doing that. You read about it in the papers, and I was going through it. I was living it. So, I had to make a choice, and I feel like I made the right one."

In order to win a championship, you have to make the Chase. And Junior put himself in perfect position to do that right from the season's opening race. He finished second at Daytona, then followed that up with back-to-back third-place finishes at Fontana and Martinsville.

In order to make the Chase, you have to win races. And Junior snapped a 143-race winless streak in June at Michigan in dominating fashion. Even though his car was the class of the field, Earnhardt said he was as nervous in the cockpit as he's been in years.

"I was just thinking, man, those laps could not go by fast enough," Earnhardt said in his post-race comments. "I was like 'I've got a big lead, I'm going to take it easy' no, I want to run it hard, get it over with. So I was just in there going crazy, thinking and I'm looking all around the racetrack hoping there's no debris around the next corner.

"I just knew I was going to come around the next corner and see a piece of metal laying in the racetrack. I was just waiting on something to happen. So that was terrifying, to be honest with you."

A fourth-place run at Indianapolis put Junior in the points lead for the first time in eight seasons. And even after a pair of poor finishes at Pocono and Watkins Glen, Earnhardt was still a lock for the Chase.

But a hard crash during tire testing at Kansas at the end of August resulted in Junior's first concussion, and eventually led to him getting out of the car.

"There have been times when it's frustrating because you want your brain to clear up, and the fogginess to go away, and all those symptoms to go away," Junior said. "Every concussion is different. They're kind of like snowflakes. Every one is different and you react differently to each one."

Earnhardt didn't lead a lap over the final four races of the season after his return, but that didn't damper his excitement one bit. After finishing 10th at Homestead, Junior was ready to keep going.

"I wish we were going to race on," Earnhardt said. "I'd just race on through to February and start back over again if it were up to me. I really enjoy being at the track and driving cars. It's been a good year, but this should be par for the course. It's been a good year, but we want to be a lot better than this. I'm not ready to stop trying to be better."

And that's a mantra he's carrying over to his private life as well. Junior's New Year's Eve parties were traditionally one of the highlights of the off-season, but he's not hosting one this time around.

"I'm too old for that now," Earnhardt said. "I might get together a couple of nights before the new year with some friends, but nothing too crazy this year."

Watch all of Earnhardt Jr.'s highlights from 2012 and flip through his year in photos below.