Winless streaks test the mettle of even NASCAR's best drivers
On Feb. 18, 2007, Kevin Harvick sat atop one of the few NASCAR peaks that has not been occupied by Jimmie Johnson over the past five years. That was the day he won the Daytona 500, nipping Mark Martin in a thrilling finish on the 50th anniversary of NASCAR's most prestigious event.
In the giddy moments that followed, Harvick proclaimed, "This is as exciting as you can get." He was 31 and coming off a career-best five-victory season. The future possibilities seemed limitless. Surely the good times would continue to roll and many more celebrations would follow.
From this high point, Harvick proceeded to embark on a steady and painful descent into sports hell.
For more than three full years, Harvick endured the monotonous drip-drip torture of one winless Sprint Cup Series race after another. Each time it was the same. Green-flag optimism ended with checkered-flag frustration. The seasons passed and the number churned steadily upward. Past 50. Past 75. Into triple digits.
Somewhere along the way a minor slump turned into a major problem. It no longer mattered that Harvick had won twice as a Cup rookie or had "Daytona 500 champion" on his resume. All he heard was chatter about the winless streak, always present and ever growing.
"You get tired of talking about it all the time, and you get frustrated with not being able to just get it over with," Harvick said. "You know you can win. You've done it before. And all of a sudden, you just don't."
Harvick finally made it back to Victory Lane in April 2010 at Talladega, halting his winless ways at 115 races. Suddenly, all seemed right in his world once again. Unburdened by the weight of the streak, Harvick went on to win twice more in 2010 and then picked up victories in three of the first 12 races this season. That's 0 for 115 followed by 6 for 39.
"The mindset is so different after you finally win, it's not even comparable," Harvick said. "When it happens, it's more relief than it is excitement."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. currently is mired in a Harvick-like streak. It has been 112 races since his most recent Cup victory, in 2008. He has been close several times and has run well enough this season that he is in ninth place in the point standings. All of that is nice, but Earnhardt has fewer victories over the past three years than Joey Logano, David Reutimann, Brian Vickers, Brad Keselowski, Trevor Bayne, Regan Smith and David Ragan.
When asked recently about his winless streak, Earnhardt insisted, "I don't dwell on it at all." But it's hard to believe that it doesn't bother him immensely. This is a driver who won 15 times during his first five seasons on the Cup circuit, including six victories in 2004 alone. Plus, his last name is Earnhardt. Winning races is what it's all about.
Long losing streaks are painful in any sport, but most come to an end in a relatively short period. The Seattle Mariners, for example, just endured a franchise-record 17-game losing streak that was one of the longer stretches of futility in baseball history. Still, the whole thing lasted only three weeks.
In NASCAR, winless streaks easily can stretch on for years, and even some of the best drivers in the business can be affected. Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon ended a 66-race winless streak earlier this season. Carl Edwards recently went 70 races without a victory. Mark Martin endured an 88-race streak from 2006 to '09. And Jeff Burton, who has 21 victories in his Cup career, once went 185 races without a win and is currently on a 96-race winless streak.
"When you go that length of time without winning, you question a lot of things," Gordon said. "Is it me? Is it the car? What is it? Is it a combination? I don't care who you are or how many races you've won, you question those things.
"There is no doubt that frustration sank in a little bit for me. A little bit of doubt. But it's amazing how that one win can bring you right back."
Perhaps the most famous winless streak in NASCAR history was held by Michael Waltrip, who had 462 Cup starts before finally breaking through with a victory in the 2001 Daytona 500. There are a couple dozen drivers who started hundreds of races without ever winning, led by J.D. McDuffie with a staggering 653. There are drivers who won a few times before settling into lengthy winless streaks (Robby Gordon, Joe Nemechek, Casey Mears), as well as some formerly successful veterans who rack up winless numbers driving for underfunded teams near the end of their careers (Bobby Labonte, Bill Elliott).
But winless streaks for drivers such as Earnhardt, Harvick and Gordon are different. They have all won big in the past and still drive for top teams. Victories are expected, and when they don't occur for years at a time, doubts are raised.
Of course, all it takes is one race, one win, to end a streak and change attitudes. The elder Dale Earnhardt had a 59-race winless streak late in his career, and there were whispers that the seven-time Cup champion was washed up. He then went out and won the 1998 Daytona 500 and picked up five more victories before his death in 2001.
If Junior simply can win one time, he might have a career resurgence like his father did, or like Harvick has enjoyed the past two seasons. Until then, however, the pressure -- and the questions -- will continue.
"You just get so tired of answering the same questions," Harvick said. "You don't really have an answer for it because you are doing everything you can do.
"You just want to make it go away."