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Junior Talks Winning At Texas Motor Speedway

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, April 14 2012

Dale Earnhardt Jr. spent some time talking about The Slump this week in Texas. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Alan Marler)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

FORT WORTH, Texas – Pardon Dale Earnhardt Jr. if he doesn’t bother sending out invitations to his next NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory.

“People know I’m not Nostradamus, so they don’t ask me questions about the future,” Junior joked earlier this week at Texas Motor Speedway, site of Saturday night’s Samsung Mobile 500. “But I feel like we’re six points out of the points lead. We’re second in points. We’re a competitive team in this sport. So I think it’s a pretty easy argument that we’re better this year than we were last year – and better than the year before that.

“So, we’re getting closer. I feel like we’re getting closer. I don’t really know what the measuring stick is but I think it’s real close. I’m ready to win and ready to go to Victory Lane.”

Junior Nation last partied hearty with their hero at Michigan International Speedway on June 15, 2008, which puts the winless streak at 135-and-counting. That fact certainly hasn’t detracted from Junior’s immense popularity, as he was loudly cheered during pre-race introductions at TMS. Junior’s NASCAR bloodlines and down-to-earth demeanor have helped make him remain one of the sport’s most marketable personalities, as evidenced by a slew of endorsements alongside crossover stars ranging from Brett Favre to Danica Patrick.

So imagine the buzz that will emanate out of the Hendrick Motorsports shops when Junior, who trails Greg Biffle of Roush Fenway Racing in the championship chase, does notch career Cup win No. 19.

“I’ve been working with these guys and they’re working hard,” said Junior, referring to crew chief Steve Letarte and the guys responsible for the No. 88 Diet Mountain Dew/National Guard Chevrolet Impala. “They’re giving me really good cars. They deserve to win races. And I think this team deserves it. I’m ready to make that happen. We’re going to just keep trying. We’re getting closer though; at least that’s the bright spot of the deal.”

Junior’s first six races have been noteworthy for three podium, or top-three, finishes – second to longtime buddy Matt Kenseth of Roush Fenway Racing in the season-opening Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway and consecutive thirds at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., and Martinsville Speedway. He has led a combined 75 laps this season, including 70 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway – sister 1.5-mile layout to TMS’ high-banked quadoval.

“I just really know that I enjoy what I’m doing and I’m enjoying the season we’re having and I like going to the racetrack with the team I’m working with,” said Junior, who qualified 16th for this 334-lapper. “And with the way things are going, that’s my favorite thing. That’s what I want to do. So, when I’m not doing that, that’s what I want to be doing. Taking a week off (for Easter) is always a good time and I always make a good time out of it and have fun, but like I said at Martinsville or wherever I said it, the races just can’t come quick enough for us.

“I feel like we’re gaining on getting to Victory Lane and so, obviously, you want the races to come as fast as they can come so we can get closer and closer and try to win us a race.”

Junior’s first career Nationwide and Cup races were, of course, scored at TMS – the latter on April 2, 2000 in only his 12th series start. He was ambushed in Victory Lane by father Dale Earnhardt, the seven-time Cup champion, and swallowed up in a bear hug that remains one of the signature moments in this track’s history. That was 12 years ago, and 11 years since Cap E died as the result of head injuries suffered in a last-lap crash of the 2001 Daytona 500.

“It’s really hard to remember 12 years ago (even) when your first race is a great feeling,” Junior said. “I’ve answered this question several times in this (infield media center) room and it gets harder every time just because it gets further away. But you’re just relieved because you want to be able to do this for a living and there’s no guarantees. And when you win your first race and we did it at Texas, which has been good to me, they have used the fact that I’ve won that race in various ways to make me proud of that moment, and make it even more special to me.

“It shows me that it meant something to them that I had won here. So, you’re just really relieved because you want to drive cars for a living and you want to be good at it. You don’t want to struggle your whole life. So winning that first race really kind of cracks that mold away from all of that and gives you a little more clear vision on what your future might be because there are so many unknowns and you worry about whether this is something…you want it so bad and you want to be a part of it and this is what I’ve wanted. I’ve wanted to drive cars all these years and be a part of it like I have.

“But at that moment and before that win, you didn’t know whether that was going to work out or whether that would happen for you. So, that starts to chip away at some of that and make you more aware and makes that vision a little more clearer to what the future might be for you.”

For the record, Junior’s most recent win at MIS broke a 76-race streak that seems like a blip when compared to his current drought. Indeed, no one associated with NASCAR could have anticipated the struggles Dale Jr. has experienced since joining Rick Hendrick’s juggernaut in ’08.

All that will be forgotten, and forgiven, should Junior revisit TMS’ Victory Lane tonight.

“I do enjoy racing at Texas,” Junior said. “It’s a mile-and-a-half, like a lot of tracks we run on in the series. But this track’s got some oddities to it and things about it that make it a lot different than most 1.5-miles. The exits, to Turn 2 especially, are a real challenge. And the bumps and stuff are pretty challenging on the bottom of both corners. The entry to (Turn) 3 is really, really loose in the race. The entry to (Turn) 1 is always a lot of fun, really fast and just trying to get the car through the middle is a challenge there.

“But it’s a unique place and what makes it even better, I think, is the energy the fans bring here. The fan base here has always been pretty solid, right from the start. And that’s kind of, in my opinion, rare.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, April 14 2012
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