Earnhardt Jr.'s time is near

Dean McNulty, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:33 AM ET

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- The measure of respect and genuine affection that Dale Earnhardt Jr. enjoys in the NASCAR Sprint Cup garage came this week when four-time champion Jeff Gordon talked about Earnhardt's 107-race winless streak.

Gordon said he hated the fact that the focus leading up to Sunday's Heluva Good Sour Cream Dips 400 at Michigan International Speedway was on Earnhardt's three-year reign of futility.

"I wish the focus was: 'Wow, look at the year Junior is having and he's third in points and knocking on the door of first and second,'" Gordon said. "If (Earnhardt) keeps doing what he's doing, the win will come. This is definitely a track he can win at."

Gordon, who also once held the title of NASCAR's most popular driver, said trying to win under the circumstances that Earnhardt faces by the very fact of his heritage is daunting.

"I know that's just part of what comes along when you're that popular and your name is Earnhardt and until he wins nobody is going lift the (pressure)," he said.

For Earnhardt just ending the skid would certainly put a stop to the seemingly limitless ways the media has found to ask him how soon will he win again.

At Michigan he contended that winning one race -- while it would ease the pressure on him and the whole No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team -- would not automatically vault him to the status of a four-time champion like Gordon.

"We need to win several races, I think, to be legitimate and it's not easy," Earnhardt said. "One win really doesn't make a season.

"We're not there now. We're getting there, we're doing good but we still know we can do better. We've been very, very lucky this year that when we've slipped up, we've had fortune and luck to pick us up."

That the NASCAR circus is in Michigan this week -- where Earnhardt last won on June 15, 2008 -- only serves to put his position into sharper focus.

Earnhardt said that it's not like he isn't trying. Just looking at the Sprint Cup championship, where Earnhardt sits third only 10 points behind leader Carl Edwards and just four points back of five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, one realizes that there are about 40 drivers who would trade places with him in a heartbeat.

"I think we are doing some pretty good work here lately," he said. "I would like to win a race and we're trying to, but we don't want to get so careless ... and start taking too many chances that are just foolish. We want to take the right chances in a smart way. So we'll keep working hard like we're doing."

By his very nature, Earnhardt is laid back. He doesn't allow himself to get too high when things are going well, or too low when things are going badly.

But he said when he does win he will enjoy the moment.

"I'll get excited," Earnhardt said. "I have always felt like you celebrate every win like it could be your last.

"You never know what happens or what could happen in this sport so I always have torn down Victory Lane every time we've been there."

He said he can't control how people see him or how people assess his career. But he admits he is puzzled that he is seen as not being a success just because he hasn't visited victory circle in such a long time.

"I think I'm having one of the best years I have ever had," Earnhardt said. "I don't remember in my career as a driver showing up to the race track and feeling like I was top-10 every single weekend, which we have done every weekend this year, except for maybe Phoenix.

"I was never able to do that before for whatever reason. I know when I had some really, really good cars back in the first half of this decade, or the previous decade, I was really young and made a lot of mistakes. Now that I feel like I am a smarter driver, this is a great opportunity because the cars have been there every weekend."

Earnhardt likes the fact that he is seen as a threat to win at every race he shows up at this season. It certainly is better than the utter frustration he felt in the two previous seasons where he said he was rarely in contention to win.

"I felt like that last year and the year before that; I wasn't competitive enough to even worry about winning," he said. "I wasn't even thinking about winning races.

"Now this year I can think about wins, I can think about opportunities and missed opportunities.

"I'm appreciative as hell to have this opportunity and to be running as well as I am."

dean.mcnulty@sunmedia.ca


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