BROOKLYN, Mich. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. is stock car racing’s most recognizable star. He is the sport’s Elvis, the LeBron, the Tiger Woods, minus all of their baggage.
But while Earnhardt is still plump with notoriety, thanks in large part to the legacy of his iconic father, that inherited foundation has had to sustain his fame for a long stretch while Earnhardt chases that next checkered flag.
Earnhardt hasn’t put a fresh trophy on the mantle in three years. It has been 107 Sprint Cup Races since his last win, which came at Michigan International Speedway in June, 2008.
“I guess ... it’s been a while,” Earnhardt said Saturday as he put his No. 88 Amp Energy/National Guard Chevy through a couple practice sessions over the two-mile MIS layout.
It has. Earnhardt has just two wins in his last 184 Cup races — he broke a 76-race drought with his 2008 MIS win. He slumped to 25th in the Cup points standings in 2009 and was just 21st last year.
Earnhardt’s fortunes are trending upward in 2011, since he comes to MIS for Sunday’s Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400 ranked third in the points.
In 14 Cup races this season, Earnhardt has been second twice, and fourth once. Even though those very positive numbers don’t seem to diminish the perception that he is under tremendous pressure to reintroduce himself to Victory Lane, Earnhardt tries to avoid looking at his winless count.
“I don’t dwell on it at all really. I can’t do nothing about not winning races other than just going out every week and trying to run hard and trying to do the best you can,” he said.
“I felt like last year and the year before that, I wasn’t competitive enough to even worry about it. I was more concerned about trying to get better and trying to even be more competitive. I wasn’t even thinking about winning races. We were struggling so bad that we had so much other things to worry about. Now this year we’re running good and I can think about wins.”
In 14 Cup races this season, Earnhardt has been in the top 10 eight times.
“I’m so thrilled to be having such a good year that it’s hard to be upset,” Earnhardt said. “It would be nice to win a race, but I don’t know who to thank for what’s happening to me this year, because I’m appreciative as hell to have this opportunity and to be running as well as I am.”
Jeff Gordon, a four-time champion in the Sprint Cup Series and Earnhardt’s teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, seem puzzled by all the fuss over his lengthy absence from the winner’s circle.
“I find this very interesting because those guys are having a spectacular season,” Gordon said about Earnhardt and his No. 88 crew. “I’ve been in that situation before where we’re having a great year, we’re up there leading the points or battling for the championship and we hadn’t won a race and that’s where the focus was. That, to me, is not right.”
Gordon understands the expectations, and he anticipates Earnhardt will win again, very soon.
“I know that’s just part of what comes along when you’re that popular and your name is Earnhardt,” Gordon said. “I think if they keep doing what they’re doing, the win will come. This is definitely a track that they can win at.”
Kevin Harvick, currently fourth in the points right behind Earnhardt, has experienced the long drought in his career.
Even though he races for a competing team, Harvick said he is a Earnhardt fan on Sundays.
“There’s not a person in this garage that doesn’t want to see Dale in victory lane,” Harvick said. “You can’t even put into perspective what he has to deal with on a week-to-week basis as far as the criticism and the fans and answering these questions in a respectful way every week. So for that part, you have to give him a lot of credit.”
When he was reminded that Sunday’s race falls on Father’s Day and asked how much it would mean to win here and honor his legendary dad, Earnhardt was embarrassed a bit by the fact he missed that connection.
“Any win, any time I win is going to be pretty cool,” he said. “I didn’t even think about it being Father’s Day. I have a terrible memory for things like that. Whatever the circumstances are, we’ll enjoy it.”
Contact Matt Markey at: email@example.com or 419-724-6510.