Dale Earnhardt Jr. searching for Victory Lane as summer nears
The drought was not nearly as long as it is on Monday, but when Dale Earnhardt Jr. returned to Victory Lane in 2008 for the first time in more than two years, he was struck by what he saw.
"I knew winning [was] going to make me happy, but I forgot, really, the look on everybody's face,'' Earnhardt said after his Michigan victory four years ago.
It reminded him of what he saw a week earlier when Brad Keselowski won a Nationwide Series race for Earnhardt's team, JR Motorsports.
"Man, I've got to get back to Victory Lane,'' Earnhardt told himself then. "I miss it so bad.''
As NASCAR heads to Michigan for Father's Day weekend, Earnhardt again searches for that lost feeling. He will be the main subject as much for what he hasn't done -- win a NASCAR Sprint Cup race since that 2008 event -- as what he has -- rank second in the standings,10 points behind Matt Kenseth.
Since his last victory 143 races ago, Earnhardt's driving, confidence, and ability have been discussed, dismissed and defended by fans, media and others.
It has been so long since he was in Victory Lane that new fans have seen Joey Logano win more often than Earnhardt. Sunday was Logano's second career Cup victory. He is one of 26 drivers who have won at least a Cup race since Earnhardt's last series triumph.
With each passing race, the unending drumbeat of when Earnhardt will win again is repeated.
That day nears even with Earnhardt facing what is typically one of the most difficult parts of the schedule for him.
Earnhardt hasn't been this high in standings at this point in the season since 2004 when he led. His run this season gives hope that the summer slump he's suffered before won't strike this year. Or at least won't be as debilitating.
He admits that some of the tracks on NASCAR's summer tour aren't his best. Yet, he's off to a good start. His fourth-place finish at Dover was his best result there since 2007. He followed that with an eighth-place finish Sunday at Pocono for his third consecutive top-10 finish at that track.
Michigan hasn't been as kind. He's had only two top-10 finishes since winning there. Then comes Sonoma, a track where he's never finished in the top 10 in 12 starts. Kentucky is next and he'll look to redeem his 30th-place result in last year's inaugural race.
July features Daytona (he was second in this year's 500), New Hampshire (three top 10s in last nine starts) and Indianapolis (two top 10s in 12 starts). Then it's back to Pocono in August and on to Watkins Glen (no top 10s in his last six starts).
Last year he was third at this point in the season and fell to ninth by the time he left Watkins Glen. Could this be the year that he takes the points lead during this stretch? Or even wins?
Crew chief Steve Letarte, in his second year with Earnhardt, has taught his driver well. Earnhardt provides more feedback during races. That helps Letarte decide what adjustments to make and eliminates the woes Earnhardt often had in the second half of races when he struggled to move forward.
Hendrick Motorsports also has been fast all year. Earnhardt has a series-high 11 top-10 finishes and if he keeps running toward the front, a win will come.
Earnhardt was in position to win Sunday at Pocono but Letarte had him pit with about 20 laps left instead of gambling on fuel. An extended caution and then a debris caution allowed those who did not stop to make it the end, denying Earnhardt a chance to race for the win.
"I like the call we made,'' Earnhardt said afterward. "We raced back up to eighth and didn't win the race; might not have won the race. We might have run third; I don't know. But it was the right call for us at this time. We had a really, really good car. That was the funnest car I've had all year and the best car I've had a Pocono in a long, long time. So I'm just really trying not to be too upset about it because we did a lot of good things today and we've got a lot to look forward to."
That's the message he sought to convey to his team after the race.
"Try again next week,'' Earnhardt radioed. "Yes, it's disappointing, but we had a hell of a car.''
Now comes Michigan and another weekend of questions of when he'll win.
A victory on Father's Day would carry extra significance for Earnhardt, just as it did four years ago.
"He meant a lot to me,'' Earnhardt said that day of his father, who died in a crash on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. "There's a lot of people that I look up to that just happen to be great fathers themselves, role models for their sons. It means a lot to me to do well on Father's Day. It's a special day for my family.
"I know I can't tell my father, 'Happy Father's Day,' but I get the opportunity to wish it upon all of the other fathers out there, and I genuinely mean that when I say it, because that's what today is all about. It's for all of the fathers out there.''
A victory this time would make Sunday Earnhardt's day. One that has been a long time coming.