Dale Earnhardt Jr. hasn’t won a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series points race since the fall of 2015, and there are some wondering if NASCAR’s most popular driver will be back in Victory Lane before the end of the 2017 season.
“He ought to just hang it up now,” said a neighbor Sunday evening, noting Earnhardt’s early departure from the I LOVE NEW YORK 355 at Watkins Glen international.
“I don’t even know where he finished; TV didn’t mention him when I got home and turned it on,” a parking attendant explained Monday morning.
It isn’t the first time NASCAR’s most popular driver has found himself and his team in a funk. But it likely will be the last.
Earnhardt Jr., 42, is scheduled to step away at season’s end, racing no more in the Monster Energy Series, appearing only occasionally in the XFINITY Series, and moving to the television booth to work with NBC during the second half of the ’18 season.
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Fourteen races remain.
He will enter Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400 (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) riding a 41-race winless streak.
He will enter Sunday’s race having failed to finish four of his previous nine starts. He will enter Sunday’s race 23rd in points and needing a victory to earn one of the 16 berths for the upcoming 10-race championship-determining playoff.
On two other occasions, Earnhardt has rolled into the Irish Hills trailed by a lengthy run of futility. Both times those streaks came to an end on the 2-mile track that has been hosting NASCAR events since 1969.
Quicken Loans 400
June 17, 2012
A four-year, 143-race winless streak came to an end in the June stop at Michigan as Earnhardt led 95 of the race’s 200 laps and enjoyed a whopping 5.3-second advantage on runner-up Tony Stewart when he took the checkered flag.
While the streak had been noteworthy, Earnhardt appeared to be on the brink of returning to Victory Lane for much of the season with runner-up finishes at Daytona in February and Richmond in April, and third-place runs at Auto Club and Martinsville.
While the Father’s Day win turned out to be his only victory of the year, it did help prepare the No. 88 team for the playoffs.
June 15, 2008
Four years before Earnhardt snapped the 143-race skid at Michigan, he broke a 76-race winless streak at the same track.
The ’08 season was Earnhardt’s first after joining Hendrick Motorsports following eight seasons at Dale Earnhardt Inc., the organization founded by his father, seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt.
Teamed with cousin Tony Eury Jr. as his crew chief, Earnhardt opened the year with non-points wins in what was then the Budweiser Shootout and his Gatorade Duel qualifying race. But a victory in a points-paying race wouldn’t occur until nearly midseason.
Earnhardt started third at MIS after rain forced officials to set the lineup per the rulebook and he was far from dominant in the race, leading only 14 laps.
But he did have something several others did not – enough fuel to make it to the end when late cautions pushed the race into overtime.
Pure Michigan 400
Aug. 13, 2017
Michigan is one of 12 tracks where Earnhardt has at least one victory. Earlier this year, he finished ninth in the FireKeepers Casino 400 at the 2-mile track, one his four top 10s so far in 2017.
Two years ago, his was a team of all seasons, with Earnhardt winning in the spring at Talladega, in the summer at Daytona and in the fall at Phoenix.
The ’15 Phoenix win remains his most recent victory. Although 59 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series points races have been contested since then, Earnhardt missed the final 18 of last year due to injury, leaving his current winless run at 41.
Longer streaks have gone by the wayside at Michigan. But on those occasions, Earnhardt and his team were running better, were more competitive week in and week out, with an average finish of 11.2 in ’08 and 7.9 in ’12. His average finish through this year’s first 22 races is 22.0.
Some feel this may be Earnhardt’s best shot at a victory and a spot in the playoffs. The time for another streak to come to an end.
The numbers indicate it’ll be more difficult this time around.