Dale Earnhardt Jr. ready to win
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. climbed out of his car after a fifth-place finish at Pocono Raceway on Sunday.
Sweat poured down his face as a throng of media surrounded him on pit road.
"Nice run," one reporter said.
Earnhardt shrugged his shoulders.
"Yeah, it was all right," he said. "I just want to win a race."
He repeated this several times.
Winning is what it's all about these days for NASCAR's most popular driver. It's what it's been about since he left the company his father built for Hendrick Motorsports after the 2007 season.
It's what hasn't been happening.
In a span of 199 races at HMS, Earnhardt has only two wins -- at Michigan in 2008 and at Michigan again in 2012. He's winless in the past 42 races, which followed a 143-race losing streak.
Meanwhile, his HMS teammates have won a combined 46 times. Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson has 31, followed by Jeff Gordon with six and Kasey Kahne with four, including last weekend at Pocono Raceway.
Mark Martin, no longer with the organization, had five wins in 2009.
No wonder Earnhardt says he's frustrated, even though he doesn't seem to let his frustration impact his driving, as it once sometimes did.
"I've been saying it for two or three years now, we just are missing that little bit," Earnhardt said. "We keep showing up with a fifth-place car every week. You're just waiting on that dang day where you're the guy, where you've got the best car.
"It's going to be hard to do as long as Jimmie and Kasey run like they do. They have great speed. Always have."
That's part of Earnhardt's dilemma. He shares a shop with his toughest competition, Johnson, and information with the other two.
It might be easier closing the gap on another organization because at least that team wouldn't know your every move.
"It's harder because they have the same equipment," Earnhardt said of his teammates. "They know what you're doing. It's sort of like, 'How are you going to drive the lane? How are you going to draw up a play?'
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"In football, when the defense knows what you're doing, it's like they know where you're going. But it raises our competitiveness. It's good for all four teams. It pushes us all harder, which is great for our team."
It's also frustrating because Earnhardt wants to win. That his teammates sometimes make it look easy only makes it more difficult.
"They're our toughest competition," Earnhardt said. "I know they're my teammates, but to be frank, they're the fastest guys out there every week. Fortunately enough for us, we know what they're doing and we can learn from them.
"So we need to take advantage of that and improve what we're doing and get ourselves in Victory Lane."
That likely won't happen this weekend on the road course at Watkins Glen, one of Earnhardt's worst tracks, where he has an average finish of 22.7 -- 27.1 over the past seven races.
But Earnhardt is getting close to the form needed to be in position for a victory. Sunday's finish was his second straight in the top 10 and sixth straight of 14th or better.
His average finish of 9.5 during that stretch is better than Kahne's at 10.6, and he's not far behind points leader Johnson at 6.6.
But Earnhardt wants more than top-10s even though his consistency has him all but a lock for the Chase at fifth in the standings.
"We're a good, competitive team, and we've just got to do everything right one weekend, and it should work out," Earnhardt said. "It's getting a little frustrating for me. I know the team is working really, really hard.
"They worked their guts out this weekend. I know they're getting frustrated, too, because we work so hard to do what we do, and it would just be nice to get to Victory Lane every once in a while."
Sunday's finish should have felt like a win. Earnhardt had a vibration so bad during Friday's practice and qualifying that his team changed everything but the motor trying to fix it.
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It never did completely, which made the fifth-place run -- that might have been a third had it not been for two cautions over the final 10 laps -- feel almost like a win.
So Earnhardt is getting close. Watkins Glen aside, he could win at any of the remaining tracks -- Michigan, Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond -- before the Chase.
Sunday's finish showed the team and Earnhardt they can handle adversity, which is a must in order to contend for a championship.
"This team does a very good job of communicating before the battle starts, and we understand what we have," crew chief Steve Letarte said. "[Earnhardt's] a very mature driver and he drives a very mature race, and that's why we are where we are in the points."
Earnhardt isn't complaining about his position in the standings.
Even without a victory, he's in a more solid position than Kahne at eighth and Gordon at ninth to finish in the top 10.
Earnhardt's 12 top-10s are more than anybody in the series outside of Johnson with 14 and Kyle Busch with 13. Pile those up as he did to start the season, when he had five straight finishes of seventh or better to take over the points lead, and he'll likely be a championship contender until the end.
And that's the ultimate goal.
But for now, Earnhardt just wants a win.
"We run well," he said. "We can't complain about how we run. We've been fast pretty much all year. I'd just like to hit on it one time."
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