News & Media

For Earnhardt, real progress behind the skid

May 30, 2011, David Caraviello,

CONCORD, N.C. -- It was all right there before him, a race track as wide as a rural Interstate highway, and one of NASCAR's grandest trophies just waiting to be claimed. Vehicles stacked up on the final restart, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. vaulted into the lead as if slung from a catapult. As the No. 88 car passed under the white flag, the crowd at Charlotte Motor Speedway united in a roar that muffled even 850-horsepower engines, all in anticipation of a 104-race winless streak ending in dramatic fashion on one of the sport's biggest stages.

Everyone was celebrating -- except the driver inside the red, white and blue car. Earnhardt knew better.

"To be honest, I know there's disappointment about coming so close, but our fans should be real happy about how we're performing, how we're showing up at the race track, how we've adapted."


"I never thought I was going to make it," he said, after he ran out of gas to finish seventh in the Coca-Cola 600. "I'm sitting there going, I'm standing in the throttle, and whatever happens, happens. I never really knew or felt like, 'Oh, I've got this in the bag.' We're supposed to be out of gas. [Crew chief] Steve [Letarte] said we should be out of gas while we were riding around in the caution there before the green-white-checkered. So I was like, we definitely ain't going to make these two green flag laps if that's the case."

And he didn't, running dry on the backstretch, but carrying enough momentum through Charlotte's high-banked corners that it wasn't until he slowed off Turn 4 that reality set in for those in the grandstands. Other contenders zipped by, eventual race winner Kevin Harvick among them, relegating Earnhardt and his legion of supporters to another agonizing close call, and adding another agonizing week to those since his last Sprint Cup victory, now nearly three years ago. He won that one, at Michigan, on fuel mileage. Sunday, he had victory snatched away for the same reason.

For all those with 88s stuck to their car bumpers or tattooed on their arms, it had to be a crushing night, especially given how well Earnhardt had run for the duration of NASCAR's longest event. And yet, standing in the garage and surrounded by cameras and microphones, Earnhardt hardly seemed devastated. No, chances to win races clearly don't come around that often for a driver with a winless streak that's stretched into triple digits. But all the hand-wringing over that breakthrough victory, and the unending focus on when it might come, obscures the real progress being made.

No, Earnhardt didn't win the Coca-Cola 600. But on the same track where his car had been garbage the week before, he was in the mix from Thursday's opening practice session until the checkered flag fell on Sunday night. This on a track where he admittedly hasn't been very good in recent years, in a marathon event of the ilk Earnhardt very well may have grown tired and frustrated and cranky in not too long ago. This was real growth, of the kind that Earnhardt needs to make the Chase and return to championship relevance, and it was there whether he wound up in Victory Lane or not.

"To be honest, I know there's disappointment about coming so close , but our fans should be real happy about how we're performing, how we're showing up at the race track, how we've adapted," said Earnhardt, who remained fourth in points. "We've definitely improved things, and we want to keep getting better and better and better. ... We're definitely going in the right direction. I felt like a true frontrunner tonight. I've felt like that sometimes this season. But the 600 is a true test. Charlotte is a true test of a team, and we performed well all night long."

Particularly when you look at where they were just a week ago, when Earnhardt was voted into the Sprint All-Star Race by the fans, and yet finished a distant 14th. "I think we were embarrassed, I know I was, with how we ran last week," Letarte said. "The fans voted us into the All-Star Race and we couldn't make any ground. That's just not really acceptable. We worked hard this week, and we brought a car that could compete, and we're proud of it."

They came back to Charlotte with a newer car, and a setup approach they had used at intermediate tracks earlier in the year. The moves paid off, as Earnhardt overcame a poor qualifying spot and within 60 laps had cracked the top 10. But repeated cautions toward the end knocked teams off their fuel strategy, and Earnhardt was one of 10 drivers who decided to stay out of the pits and make a dash for it. One of those was Harvick, the winner. Another was Kasey Kahne, who restarted in the lead with Earnhardt on his inside, but ran out of gas as the field approached the first turn. Kahne's car wiggled as it was struck by the onrushing vehicle of Brad Keselowski, and two cars spun in the choked-up aftermath, but in NASCAR's eyes the field righted itself quickly enough and kept rolling, so the caution flag stayed furled.

"There were spins and stuff," said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president for competition, "but they all got rolling, so it was OK."

For Earnhardt and Letarte, staying out was the only option. "I just do whatever my dang crew chief says, but I believe that was the right call," Earnhardt said. "Because if we'd have pitted, I don't know where we would have finished. We'd have finished wherever David Ragan finished. That was probably in front of us. But think about it, man. Winning the 600, that would be awesome. I had to try. Had to try."

Ragan finished second, but unlike Earnhardt, didn't have a real shot of winning the race. "The guys had it figured perfect," Letarte said. "They said, you're going to run out somewhere on the backstretch, and it ran out going into [Turn] 3. It's still a very calculated risk. I think it was worth taking. The winner took it, so why not."

Even so, it was heartbreaking to watch, even for the competition. "I feel so stinkin' bad for them," Harvick said. "I know how bad he wants it. But it will happen. They keep running like that, it will happen."

At some point, of course, that albatross of a winless skid is going to have to be unloosed from around Earnhardt's neck. The way he's run for much of this year -- he also had a real chance at Martinsville -- you have to think it's coming at some point. But this is a sport that is built on consistency, and a program that had to be rebuilt from the cars all the way to the driver's confidence. A sole focus on getting one win obscures a movement toward a time when it won't seem like a surprise anymore when Earnhardt is up front. He may not ever get back to his glory days with Dale Earnhardt Inc., when he dominated restrictor-plate tracks and won six times in a single season. But this is also a team and a driver worlds removed from the ones that finished 25th and 21st the past two seasons, win or lose in one single event in Charlotte.

"I know we're doing a good job, I know we're unloading good cars," Earnhardt said. "The car we unloaded in the [All-Star Race], I didn't get into the meeting about what the plan was, and it wasn't a good car. Tonight we had a good car, and we showed it. I'm real happy with our effort. These guys got to lift their heads up, man, because we're doing a good thing. We're building a good team and a good chemistry. They keep their heads up, we'll keep on improving, and that's what's important. We let this bother us too much, and we won't improve as much as we can. We want to win races. We're getting close enough to where a couple of them are about to fall in our lap. We get that extra step, we'll be in business."

Like the cars, the driver is a work in progress. "Next time I come here, I'll feel more confident when I show up," he said. "I wasn't confident this week even though the lap times were great in practice and the car was ... really good. I've got to get more confidence. Even though this weekend we showed up and were really fast in practice, I thought, 'Yeah, yeah, I've seen this before. The race starts and let's see what happens.' It was great."

He felt that way even though he didn't win, even though his National Guard-backed car lost on the final lap just as its counterpart in the Indianapolis 500 had done earlier in the day. Yes, Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s winless skid continued on Sunday. But so did his unquestioned growth toward something bigger, even if sometimes it's difficult to see.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.