LONG POND, Pa. – By the time Dale Earnhardt Jr. reached Victory Lane last season at Michigan, the win seemed as much inevitable as implausible.
One top 10 finish at a time, Earnhardt built and built before a 4-year and 143-race winless streak was snapped; a legion of fans sent into a frenzy as NASCAR’s most popular driver finally gave them all a reason to go wild.
Well, look who’s back on a hot streak.
And look what track’s on deck for the ol’ No. 88.
Earnhardt is set to roll into Michigan International Speedway, site of his last two Sprint Cup victories, enjoying a bit of a renaissance for Hendrick Motorsports. He’s in fourth place in the points standings – he finished 12th last season – and is coming off a third-place finish Sunday at Pocono Raceway.
Earnhardt can’t be blamed too much for being unable to pull out his first win of the season. No driver was going to beat his Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson, who led 128 of 160 laps en route to his third win of the season. Earnhardt was there at the end, though, battling Johnson off two restarts over the final 10 laps before finally yielding to Greg Biffle for second. He has two straight top 10s and three in his last four races.
While the results – and certainly, the championships – don’t show it, Earnhardt and five-time champion Johnson have the cars built pretty much side by side at Hendrick’s shop. Earnhardt crew chief Steve Letarte and Johnson’s pit box guru Chad Knaus swap ideas, setups and a sneak peek other useful tidbits, if needed, before every race.
“They grow stronger and stronger each week,” Johnson said. “I know there’s a bright light on these guys and what they do week and week out. They’re strong and they elevate their teammates, as well. They’re great teammates.”
Johnson hasn’t done too bad, himself. He won his third race and his 63rd career Cup victory helped stretch his points lead to 51 over Carl Edwards.
Earnhardt’s performance had tailed off a bit after opening the season with five straight top 10s, including two runner-up finishes.
A five-race dip, with four finishes of 16th or worse, was next. At the rate he’s rebounded, those results could just be a blip that happens to just about every driver over the taxing 36-race season.
“We’ve been carrying momentum for a good solid year now,” Earnhardt said. “We started the year off really good. We just had a lot of problems since then and just struggled to get good finishes. We are all right. We know what we need to do. Confidence is there. All the fans can rest assured we feel like we are on the right track.”
Now if only Johnson would just get out of Earnhardt’s way.