Junior's ready to end streak
BROOKLYN, Mich. -- It would have been so easy to let your imagination run wild on pit road late Thursday afternoon at Michigan International Speedway.
There was Dale Earnhardt Jr. standing beside a black car, the same color car that his father became renowned for as "The Intimidator." On the hood were the words "The Dark Knight Rises," and immediately one could have thought of the senior Earnhardt known as the "Man in Black," not Batman.
From there you could have tied together all sorts of common threads, how "The Dark Knight" came out the summer of 2008, and how the last time Earnhardt celebrated a win (June 15, 2008) came only a few feet away from where he stood Thursday.
You could have wondered if Sunday's race -- on Father's Day -- could be the moment he rises.
Then reality hits you. You begin the interview and realize Earnhardt's imagination was directed at the new Batmobile -- the Tumbler -- that sat a few car lengths behind his black No. 88 as part of the movie promotion.
"I'm interested in going up there and taking a better look at it myself," Earnhardt said.
Earnhardt isn't as wrapped up in this losing streak that began four years, or 1,461 days, or 25,064 hours or 2,103,840 minutes ago on Friday, as the rest of NASCAR Nation is.
Sure, he wants to win.
He sometimes daydreams about it.
But his life isn't consumed by it. He doesn't lose sleep wondering if he'll ever again have the feeling he had four years ago when he pumped his fist into the Irish Hills air and screamed "Yes!" after claiming the fuel-mileage victory to end a 76-race skid.
"It hasn't been that incessant," said Earnhardt of the losing streak, using a word that doesn't seem to fit his good ol' boy demeanor. "I feel like it's just a realistic inquiry and I feel pretty comfortable answering that question. And I've been honest. When you ask why we haven't won, I feel like I've told you how terrible we might have been and why we weren't winning or how close we are and that it's right around the corner.
"But I don't feel like you guys have asked the question too many times, because I think that if you weren't asking that kind of question, I'd be a little worried that nobody gives a dang when you're going to win."
That's what makes Earnhardt so endearing, despite the streak. He speaks his mind in an honest and sincere way few in the sport dare. People are drawn to that. His team is drawn to that, which makes it want to win more for him.
"He's just a really good-hearted guy, and a lot of fans maybe see that," crew chief Steve Letarte said.
Earnhardt's losing streak may be unlike any other in sports because of his popularity. Many teams that endure what NASCAR's nine-time consecutive most popular driver has will see fans bail. Junior Nation seems to grow stronger, almost bonded by the winless streak.
Surveys show Earnhardt still owns about 30 percent of the sport's fan base. He recently was ranked seventh on Forbes' most valuable athlete sports brands list, trailing Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Phil Mickelson, David Beckham, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.
He does this despite having only one win in his past 220 races, a stat others on the list probably can't imagine.
It's hard for Earnhardt's racing peers to fathom.
"You guys bust my stones after 16 races," said five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson with a laugh. "I can only imagine four years."
Said Greg Biffle, "Oh, it has to be terrible. I would think about retiring."
He paused, then added, "I better quit teasing. Everyone is going to hate me."
Biffle's right. Few things in NASCAR draw more criticism than making jokes about Earnhardt. Just the mention on Twitter of this being the four-year anniversary of his last win drew responses of hatred.
"They have a loud voice," Letarte said of Junior Nation, by far the largest fan base in the sport. "It's tough being any fan favorite, but when it comes down to it, we want to do our best for them. To do that you have to bring back trophies."
Earnhardt has come close. He's finished second seven times since taking the checkered flag on that cloudy day at MIS four years ago, and has numerous other times when he was in the top five going into the final laps.
Only a week ago at Pocono he was running third with a potential winning car before having to stop late for fuel.
Earnhardt is so close to winning that he can taste it.
"I feel like we're getting really close," he said. "I feel like if we keep going, we're going to win some races."
As much as Biffle tried to be funny, he understands to a lesser degree how tough it is to go through what Earnhardt has. He snapped a 49-race skid at Texas earlier this season.
"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. 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, if that makes any sense."
It does. When Earnhardt struggled to get a top 10 in 2009, when he had a career-worst 23.2 average finish and ended the year 25th in points, he wasn't thinking about wins as much as he was a decent finish.
Then, the eighth he had at Pocono would have felt like a victory instead of a defeat.
"I feel better right now than I have in the last several years when we weren't competing well; when we weren't running well and we had to answer as to why we weren't winning," said Earnhardt, who is second in points behind Matt Kenseth. "We were miles from winning, you know? We were so far away from being able to compete and win a race and be competitive enough to win a race that that was a tough question to answer.
"Now, it just feels like it's right around the corner."
Competitors feel it, too. That's why it makes asking Earnhardt about the streak on a weekly basis legitimate even though fans criticize you for it, why it seems more relevant than ever when coming to the place where he last won.
"Him running as good as he is, we all know and his team knows and I know that he is going to win a race," Biffle said.
Said Johnson, "We all pay very close attention to what's going on with the No. 88 and the speed in the car and how competitive he is. We all know that a win and then multiple wins are right around the corner."
Speed. That's the key. You can talk all day about how Earnhardt is more confident than ever, how he and Letarte are communicating better than Earnhardt has with any other crew chief, but the big reason for their success is a fast car.
Earnhardt and Letarte have found something that makes them fast off the truck every week. They've found something that has allowed them to overcome late fuel stops to record a series-best 11 top-10s, one fewer than they had all of last season.
That Earnhardt was fast again in practice at Michigan is another reason optimism is unusually high that the streak will end here.
"That takes a lot of pressure off," Letarte said. "It's easier to call pit strategy, easier to call race strategy, easier on restarts everything is easier when you have fast cars."
It's easier to call pit strategy, easier to call race strategy, easier on restarts everything is easier when you have fast cars.” -- Crew chief Steve Letarte
Earnhardt didn't have that speed when he won here in 2008. He had to sweat out the final laps, hoping and praying that he won. He was lucky, and he knows that.
"Oh, probably just the nerves the last few laps and all those caution laps and knowing we had a green-white-checkered and not sure we had enough gas to make it," Earnhardt said of what he remembered most about that day.
Then Earnhardt was desperate for a win and willing to take the gamble on fuel. There's not that sense of desperation today, which made the decision to pit at Pocono the only logical choice when you consider what running out of gas might have done to the psyche of the team.
"I don't know exactly what it would do to a team like us if we were to run out of gas and have a terrible finish," Earnhardt said. "I'm not quite sure whether I want to test the waters and see how detrimental that would be to our psyche and how tough that would be on our team.
"So it's just best that we made a good call and we were good enough to get back up to the top 10."
What gets lost in all of this is Earnhardt's ultimate goal isn't to end a losing streak. His goal is to do what his father did seven times.
"I want to try to win a championship," he said. "That's what you run the whole season for, and our team has really, really good speed now. And so if we can put together this type of performance in the Chase, I don't see why we can't consider ourselves with an opportunity to challenge for the championship."
When this Dark Knight rises, he wants it to for the long run, not just a one-night stand as his win was four years ago.
"We're just out here promoting the new Batman movie with Diet Mountain Dew," Earnhardt said, getting in a plug for his sponsor before questions about his streak began.
He was keeping it real.
Still, it would have been easy to let your imagination run wild.