Relaxed Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a good place

June, 10, 2011

LONG POND, Pa. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. arrived at Pocono Raceway on Friday wearing a T-shirt with the words, "Coral Isle. Free Beer ... tomorrow."

The shirt came from a website that Earnhardt found a while back. He seemed quite proud of it, telling how for only $20 you can get a T-shirt featuring the best dive bars "you've never heard of."

"It's pretty cool," Earnhardt said. "They give you a little postcard with a little story about the bar."

One thing about the shirt seemed fitting: "... tomorrow."

Seems we have been saying forever -- or at least since June 15, 2008, the last time NASCAR's most popular driver visited Victory Lane -- that Earnhardt will get his next win "tomorrow."

If Earnhardt doesn't snap his 106-race losing streak on Sunday at Pocono, he will have gone exactly three years without a win when the Sprint Cup Series heads to Michigan next week.

He doesn't seem concerned.

Tomorrow doesn't seem nearly as far away as it did seven months ago, before Earnhardt and new crew chief Steve Letarte were paired, before his confidence began a gradual climb to what it was when he first entered the sport.

When you're third in points with two second-place finishes and as many top-5s (three) as you had all last season, when you lead the series in laps completed (99.82 percent) and have a driver rating (89.51) that is almost six points better than the 83.7 average from 2008-10, it's easy to be upbeat.

You may even start to think you can win at a track where your average finish is 17.9, where your average finish the past four trips is a dismal 25.25, with no finish better than 19th.

"That's where you want to be -- close," Earnhardt said. "If not winning, that's better than running damn 25th and 30th every week, I'll tell you that."

Earnhardt was almost giddy with some of his responses, particularly when it came to the topic of shifting, which drivers will be able to do in full earnest at Pocono for the first time since NASCAR took that away from them in 2005.

"Shifting is no big deal," Earnhardt said. "It'll be the same way as it was last year. Take last year's race and replay it and just imagine all the other drivers are shifting."

It's not quite that simple. Drivers who never have shifted at Pocono -- four-time winner Denny Hamlin, for example -- will tell you it changes the rhythm and puts more strain on the engine.

But from Earnhardt's perspective, he's not worried about it and that is another example of the good place he's in mentally. I can't say physically, because when asked if he was on teammate Jimmie Johnson's stringent workout program, Earnhardt said, "What's that? Playing golf on Monday?"

Told you he was giddy.

He'll be even giddier if he makes it to Victory Lane on Sunday.

David Newton | email

ESPN Staff Writer



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