CONCORD, N.C. – It wouldn’t be difficult, not at all, to surmise that Dale Earnhardt Jr. badly wants to win at Charlotte Motor Speedway – and to do so this weekend in the Coca-Cola 600 would achieve a personal goal.
After all, for all of his talent and technical support, Earnhardt Jr. has not won a points race at CMS. His only victory was in The Winston, the predecessor to the Sprint All-Star Race, in 2000.
At that time Earnhardt Jr. drove a No. 8 Chevrolet for his father’s organization, Dale Earnhardt Inc.
“This is definitely a race I would love to win,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I want to win a points race so bad.”
Earnhardt Jr. recounted how some of his first racing memories came at Charlotte. The track is located only few miles from his Kannapolis home.
“Being we were from right up the road, we always came here,” he said. “I remember watching a lot of races from the condos in 1982, 1983.
“It’s frustrating that I haven’t won a race here other than the All-Star Race. I’ve never really felt I had a car here that could win.
“They were always good cars but we always seemed to get outrun.”
In a somewhat acrimonious split from DEI, supposedly created when Earnhardt Jr. could not get a sizable ownership percentage of the team from Teresa Earnhardt, his mother-in-law, the driver tore away from his roots and joined Hendrick Motorsports.
He’s had his ups and downs with Hendrick through the years. He’s not won a championship, something he felt would happen when he joined the team.
And, of course, he has not won at CMS.
But this season Earnhardt Jr. has been in top form. He’s been more competitive, week in and week out, than he’s been in the last several years.
He opened the season with a victory in the Daytona 500. That win accomplished at least two things: First, the mixture of Earnhardt Jr. and Hendrick returned to excellence on the restrictor-plate tracks.
Second, and this is most important, Earnhardt Jr. all but assured himself a spot in this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Any driver who wins at least one race has the inside track to the Chase, which was re-formatted to allow 16 drivers – hopefully all winners – to compete.
Earnhardt Jr. has not faded since Daytona. In fact, he’s been very competitive.
He’s fourth in points with seven top-10 finishes in 11 races.
Among those finishes are seconds at Phoenix and Las Vegas – the two races following Daytona – and Darlington.
He earned a fifth-place finish at Kansas, a week before the All-Star race and the last points race prior to the 600.
Earnhardt Jr. was solid in the All-Star Race, finishing fourth.
But he said that was a better finish than his Chevrolet should have earned. He added that there was work to be done before the 600, the longest race in NASCAR.
“We need to improve before the 600,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “We know that. Some of the guys in the (All-Star) race had trouble at the end and that’s why we gained a couple of spots.
“We have to find speed and grip. We know what we have to do and I am confident we’ll get it done.”
Earnhardt Jr. admitted that the “sprint” that is the All-Star race is all about money. But he contends there is more to it than cash.
“You try to pay attention to what you are doing and what you are feeling in your car so you can use those notes next week in the 600,” he said. “You try to look at what your teammates are doing, learning what they are doing, that you might want to do this week when you are going through it all. “There is a lot to be learned and hopefully we will get our car going pretty quick.”
Studying his teammates might be a good strategy for Earnhardt Jr. Six-time champion Jimmie Johnson has won at Charlotte six times, which ties him with Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip as the all-time leader.
Jeff Gordon has won five times, Kasey Kahne four.
Johnson, however, has yet to win this year and is seventh in points, 28 behind Earnhardt and 54 behind leader Gordon.
“I think they’re just kind of searching with the new rules and where to get Jimmie comfortable and fast and find the speed,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I’ve seen them have speed and then sometimes they just don’t, for whatever reason.
“And when they get in traffic or something they’ve had a little trouble in traffic. I don’t think it’s a big deal, man.
“They are obviously still kind of searching for what they’re looking for. They’re still searching for some speed.”
By his own admission, that is exactly what Earnhardt Jr.’s Hendrick team is doing.
And it would be good to find it by the Coca-Cola 600. That would give Earnhardt Jr. a better chance to win a points race at CMS for the first time in his career.
“The All-Star race was a great opportunity to really be at the race track and get some laps in race condition to try and give yourself the best opportunity to win the 600-miler,” he said. “I feel like we will do that.
“I think we will be ready.”