Dale Earnhardt, Jr., runs a practice lap for the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway.
THE BLADE/JEFFREY SMITH
BROOKLYN, Mich. — A year ago this weekend, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., took control of the 400-mile NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Michigan International Speedway, then widened his lead to nearly six seconds to create an insurmountable advantage.
Nearly a year has passed since Earnhardt won his last race. Junior is still looking for a similar thrill.
The Quicken Loans 400 begins at 1 p.m. today at Michigan International Speedway, and while Earnhardt is one of NASCAR’s most recognizable drivers, he seeks to end that drought.
Since the start of the 2005 season, Earnhardt has won only four races, including a pair of wins at MIS. In May, 2012, Earnhardt ran out of fuel as he led the final lap of the Coca Cola 600 in Charlotte. While he finished second at the Daytona 500 in February, he conceded that even with a few more laps, he may not have been able to beat race winner Jimmie Johnson.
Earnhardt has four Top 5 finishes and nine Top 10 finishes in 14 starts this season, yet he is pragmatic about where he stands and outlines the expectation he and his team have.
“It’s good to be close,” said Earnhardt, who qualified 12th for today’s race. “That’s the difference between where we are and where we want to be. We want to win more races. We want to win numerous races and multiple races in a season. We want to be that status quo. We want to be that norm. We want to be what is expected.”
Earnhardt was one of 13 drivers in Friday’s qualifying who had lap speeds of at least 200 miles an hour on a track that’s known for its speed, combined with the Generation-6 car that is in its first year of Sprint Cup competition.
“We knew coming here with this new car that it was going to go faster than it was last year,” said Martin Truex, Jr., who qualified 13th. “It’s not surprising. Even though it is pretty hot here, these things have been really fast wherever we went, so it’s not surprising to see that [speed].”
A year ago, Sprint Cup qualifiers set record speeds on the then-newly repaved MIS track, and the process was wasn’t without its struggles.
But on Friday and Saturday, drivers had few complaints about the track, more than a year after its repave.
“It’s going to continue to get better,” Truex said. “The tires are still pretty hard, which makes a difference. It makes it difficult to get grip, but with the track getting some time and some wear on it, it definitely hasn’t been as edgy. You can drive the car a little bit harder and still feel like you’re in control.
“Last year, there were times you just felt like you were along for the ride. It was hard to do anything with what you had.”
Danica Patrick, who is running her first full season on the Sprint Cup circuit, calls the 2-mile superspeedway a “momentum track.”
“I feel like I’ve come from a background of carrying a lot of momentum and using a lot of throttle, and being smooth and hopefully that’s something that can help me here,” said Patrick, who is in search of her first Top 10 finish since February, when she was ninth at Daytona. “But at the end of the day, it has to handle well, it has to feel good, it has to be a fast car.
“At the Cup level, it’s very, very competitive and being a little off is being a lot off. My strength is that carrying momentum is something I’m used to doing.”
But as opposed to two qualifying laps and a handful of laps over three practice sessions Friday and Saturday, the challenge is to be consistent over the course of 400 miles.
For Earnhardt, there’s another level to that challenge — one that won’t come with a short-term fix but instead a long-term pursuit.
“We are working hard,” Earnhardt said. “We ran good [at Pocono] and I feel like we’ll be competitive this weekend. That doesn’t answer the questions at places like Charlotte or Dover. We still have to work hard and figure out what we have to do to get back to those places and be faster. The answers aren’t here at Michigan. They weren’t at Pocono. The tracks are all too different. We’ve still got some holes to fill, so to speak.”