Dustin Long
Monday May 30th, 2011

CONCORD, N.C. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. knew he was staring at a mirage, but for a driver whose last NASCAR Sprint Cup victory came nearly three years ago, he couldn't resist its lure.

That this vision took place at a track where he played in the infield as a youth while his daddy raced, where he made his Cup debut in 1999 and where he won the All-Star Race in 2000 -- his father bear-hugging him afterward -- only made this image more tantalizing.

Two laps from the end of Sunday night's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Earnhardt restarted next to leader Kasey Kahne. Earnhardt was 3 miles from winning his first Cup race since Michigan in June 2008.

Yet, Earnhardt knew what was about to happen.

Just before the final restart, Greg Biffle relinquished the lead because he was out of fuel. Earnhardt faced the same fate. The team calculated that Earnhardt would run out of fuel on the backstretch during the final lap, yet he and crew chief Steve Letarte decided to risk it.

"We came here to try to win it,'' Letarte said on the team's radio.

Earnhardt shot to the lead on the restart when Kahne ran out of fuel, creating a logjam behind that allowed Earnhardt to pull away. His advantage grew until his engine quit in Turn 3 on the last lap. Earnhardt's lead was so large that Kevin Harvick didn't pass him until the final corner. Earnhardt's car, meanwhile, coasted to a seventh-place finish.

"I had to try,'' Earnhardt said as he walked back to his team's hauler afterward. "Don't you have to try? I think you do. I really think you do. The chances were not good to make it, but you have to try. You have to. Hell yeah, you've got to try. I can't go home not trying, you know? I understand if it's 100 percent we're not going to make it, damn right, get your ass down pit road. We had a shot. We had a chance. You had to go for it.''

That's how, on a night that teased and traumatized Earnhardt fans, their driver still managed a smile afterward.

This was another step in Earnhardt's return to prominence. Ridiculed the past couple of seasons for disappointing results -- except in the voting for the sport's most popular driver award -- Earnhardt is thriving with his new crew chief and crew.

Letarte said his preseason goal was to make Earnhardt relevant again. He's done more. Letarte has pulled Earnhardt from an abyss and helped his driver regain his confidence.

There's still some work to do, but Earnhardt no longer carries the hangdog look he sported throughout the past two years.

Six top-10 finishes -- he scored only 13 top-10s the past two seasons combined -- have Earnhardt fourth in the points and focused on a title.

He admits he wasn't as confident when he came to the track this weekend but that was based off last week's performance. Earnhardt struggled in the Sprint Showdown and advanced to the All-Star Race only because he won the fan vote. He wasn't a factor, finishing 14th in the 21-car field.

"I think we were embarrassed, I know I was, with how we ran last week,'' Letarte said. "The fans vote us into the All-Star Race and we couldn't make any ground. That's just not really acceptable. We went to work really hard this week and brought a car that could compete.

"We tried to get aggressive last week and it didn't work, but you have to do that. That's what the All-Star Race is all about, to try to learn and we learned that that setup didn't work.''

The 600 was a pivotal weekend for the team in how they reacted. They returned with a fast car. Other teams noticed. They saw how his car excelled in practice. The whispers grew louder on race day. Earnhardt's car would be one to watch.

He didn't disappoint, climbing from his 25th starting spot to into the top-10 within the first 50 laps.

"When that race started, the first three runs on tires our car was phenomenal,'' Earnhardt said. "When the sun come down, it kind of leveled the playing field, but we still had a top-3, top-5 car.''

Carl Edwards later proved how difficult Earnhardt's feat was. Edwards had one of the stronger cars in the first half of the race but when he pit off sequence many of the leaders, he found himself in the back of the pack and struggled to climb to 12th.

Such charges have become common with Earnhardt this season. The one issue he and Letarte have had is that they need to be better when they unload the car at the start of the weekend. Even starting midway in the pack, Letarte saw progress.

"I feel, car-wise, this is probably our most consistent weekend that we've had yet this year, really start to finish,'' he said.

He also knows that work remains. While Harvick won the 600, the Fords showed that they're still the strongest cars on the intermediate tracks. Roush Fenway Racing's four drivers -- Matt Kenseth, Biffle, David Ragan and Edwards -- combined to lead more than half the laps run Sunday. This marked the first time in the last four points races on 1.5-mile tracks that a Roush car did not win. With the series headed this week to Kansas Speedway, another 1.5-mile track, Roush cars will again look to be the favorites.

"We have room to go,'' Letarte said about challenging the Fords. "I'm very proud of our program. I think Kansas should be fun.''

It almost was Sunday night.

Yet, in a cruel twist of fate, Earnhardt's finish nearly matched that in the Indianapolis 500. JR Hildebrand, driving a National Guard-sponsored car, led until crashing into the wall on the last corner of the last lap of that race. A few hours later, Earnhardt's National Guard car lost the lead on the last corner of the last lap.

"It's tough, two races today for National Guard,'' Earnhardt said. "That kid did a lot in the Indy race and they should be real proud of their efforts and how close they came. When he comes back, he'll have the confidence that he didn't have when he showed up.''

Same with you, Earnhardt was asked.

"Me too,'' he said. "I'm building up my confidence and this is a good thing.''

That doesn't mean there wasn't some frustration with coming so close even as Earnhardt smiled at times after the race.

One only had to listen to his radio after the checkered flag.

"I would have liked to have won that (expletive) race,'' Earnhardt said.

Instead of dwelling on what didn't happen, Earnhardt saw how close he is to winning and his tone changed.

"You all did good,'' he said on the radio. "I'm really happy to be with you guys. You all make me a helluva driver. We're going to get us one. Just keep working.''

Earnhardt can see what's ahead.

Dustin Long covers NASCAR for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., The Roanoke (Va.) Times and the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C. His blog can be found here.

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