Earnhardt close to ending four-year skid

Dale Earnhardt Jr., has been running well — including this week during testing at Michigan...

Dale Earnhardt Jr., has been running well — including this week during testing at Michigan International Speedway — and looks to get off the schneid at the Quicken Loans 400. (Getty Images/AFP)

DEAN MCNULTY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:13 PM ET

BROOKLYN, MICH. - It has been 1,461 days since Dale Earnhardt Jr. last popped the cork on a bottle of celebratory champagne in a NASCAR Sprint Cup race.

That, if you are counting, is exactly four full seasons of futility for the most famous son in stock car racing.

It was on July 15, 2008 that Earnhardt and the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team took the checkered flag in the Lifelock 400 at Michigan International Speedway.

He has been looking for the next one ever since.

But 14 races into the 2012 Sprint Cup season it looks increasingly like that next win is imminent.

Earnhardt has had — by anyone’s standard — a hugely successful run so far this season, with 11 top 10s and five top 5s.

Those kinds of finishes have been good enough to put him in second place in the Cup championship points battle, just 10 ticks behind leader Matt Kenseth.

And that is without a win.

In fact Greg Biffle, Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson, who have five wins between them, all trail Earnhardt in the standings.

Earnhardt talked on Thursday about how this season and last season with crew chief Steve Latarte has rejuvenated his career and how he can see the end of his long winless streak on the horizon.

“I feel like we are getting real close to getting back to the win column,” he said. “We are competing well every week at every track.”

Last week at Pocono Earnhardt had another top 10 finish (8th) in a race where he also led laps.

That, he said, has him pumped.

“I am excited; we ran great last week in a strong car so I am excited about this week,” Earnhardt said.

Still there is pressure on the son of NASCAR’s most famous racer to win and win soon.

Earnhardt said that with a better record this season, he feels less pressure than when he was running poorly and twice missing the Chase over those past four losing seasons.

“I feel better right now than I have in the last several years,” he said. “When we weren’t running well we were like four miles from winning. That’s pressure.

“It certainly feels better now that we are competitive. Now we feel like a win is right around the corner so there is less pressure.”

There is also pressure from just being who he is — an Earnhardt — and the most popular driver in the sport by a country mile.

Five time champion Jimmie Johnson said that he feels bad for his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, especially having to answer the constant media questions about he elongated losing streak.

“It’s been tough on him,” he said. “This year we all know that a win and then multiple wins are right around the corner. Those guys are real close to being on.”

Greg Biffle also said that Earnhardt faces pressures that no other driver in the garage faces.

“You know, it wears on you,” Biffle said. “It really does and the other thing that is actually worse for him right now is that he is running so good that it seems like when you run as good as he is running the pressure is even greater because you know a win is just around the corner.”

For Earnhardt, however, he has an optimism this season that his been missing for the past four years. It has to do with speed, something he has to have to end this era of misery.

“Last year we ran well and were happy where we finished in the points,” he said. “But we didn’t really find the speed like we have this year.

“Now we have found good speed.”

Earnhardt said he remembers everything about his last win at Michigan four seasons ago and he would like nothing more to feel that again on Sunday.

“I know I was nervous the last few laps,” he said. “I remember we had a green-white-checkered and I wasn’t sure if we had enough gas to make it to the end.”

It is clear that he wants all the questions about the streak to end and he knows the only way to make that happen is to win. “We will see what kind of car we can put out on the starting grid on Sunday,” Earnhardt said. “I feel that if we keep going like we have been this season we are going to win some races.

“We just have to keep working.”

FAST TRACK A CONCERN

BROOKLYN, Mich. — Just how fast is too fast for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series?

Well, the answer could come Sunday at Michigan International Speedway in the Quicken Loans 400.

On Thursday in the afternoon practice session, six drivers posted laps of more than 200 m.p.h., with Tony Stewart fastest at 201.896 m.p.h. in the No. 14 Chevrolet.

The track record was 194.232 m.p.h. set by Ryan Newman back in 2005.

On Thursday all 43 Cup drivers were faster.

There was some concern among drivers that safety would become an issue if speeds stayed above the 200 m.p.h. mark through race day.

Greg Biffle said that he still felt in control, but that the speeds were near the maximum for these types of race cars on a track like MIS.

“I think we’re approaching some safety concerns at the speeds we’re going,” he said. “We’re certainly pushing the envelope with the extra speed. The wall still isn’t going to move when you get there.”

Five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said that he was almost giddy at the prospect of racing at 200 m.p.h. plus.

“Every lap does feel like a qualifying lap, but right now because of the comfort, you complete the lap and you kind of giggle,” he said.

But he admitted it does come with a fear factor.

“We feel it,” he said of that fear.

NASCAR vice-president of competition Robin Pemberton, however, said he expects speeds to drop as the weather gets hotter through the weekend and that the series has no plans to order changes to slow the cars down.

“As they continue to run and lay down rubber, and the other series (Nationwide and ARCA) that will run here throughout the weekend, the pace will slow down,” he said.


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