FORT WORTH, Texas – Of course Dale Earnhardt Jr. remembers the day.
“I remember how cold it was,” Earnhardt Jr. says. “And I remember when he grabbed me, knocked my hat crooked and that was how I had my hat on that day in front of a national television audience, crooked.”
It was April 2, 2000, and Earnhardt Jr. had just won his first Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway. The “he” Earnhardt Jr. is talking about is his late father, Dale Earnhardt, who had come to victory lane to congratulate his son.
“That win just shocked me,” Earnhardt Jr. recalls. “I could hardly hold the gas pedal down the last 30 laps. My legs and my whole body were just shaking. I don’t know if I could top that.”
Jeff Burton finished second that day. He remembers it, too.
“I got in the helicopter leaving and his dad was in there,” Burton says. “I said, ‘What the hell are you doing? You ought to be in Victory Lane.’ And I remember him saying. ‘Man this is his day, not mine.’ I thought that was cool.”
Earnhardt Jr. hasn’t won at Texas since, and he hasn’t won anywhere since Richmond in May 2006. That’s 68 races without a win, nearly two full seasons, and the wait is getting tiresome for Earnhardt Jr. and for his legion of fans.
“I think the majority of the (fans) are as hungry as I am to get a win,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I want to go out there and get a win and I want to get that out of the way and tack it onto my stats and all that good stuff.
“But the thing I’m trying not to look past is how much better I’m doing in my career ... and how much of a better situation I’m in and how much happier I am as a person and just what all good has come from this change that I made.”
One year ago Sunday, the official story was that Earnhardt Jr. was still trying to decide if he would return to Dale Earnhardt Inc. once his contract ended at the end of the 2007 season. In reality, that die has pretty much been cast.
When Kyle Busch fell out late, he thought his car was done and wasn’t around when his team at Hendrick Motorsports got it repaired. The team looked around for someone to substitute for Busch and wound up putting Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 5 Chevrolet.
It was not, despite what some would have you believe, an audition. It might have given Earnhardt Jr. a peek at what he’d been racing against all along, but that, too, may be revisionist history.
It turned out to be, at the very least, a heck of a coincidence since Earnhardt Jr. eventually moved to the Hendrick team, effectively supplanting Busch from that roster.
So Sunday, as Earnhardt Jr. looks to break his long winless streak and give the Hendrick team its first win of the 2008 season, he’ll do it from the pole with Busch, now driving a Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, lined up behind him in the No. 3 starting spot.
Busch already has a win this year and has turned heads with his performance in the Cup, Nationwide and Truck series. But Earnhardt Jr. has five top-10 finishes in six races – the most of anybody in the Cup series – and he’s fourth in points. A year ago he was 11th coming into this weekend and 18th after finishing 36th here.
“I knew that Rick’s program and his company were awesome and that they continue to do things that are impressive,” Earnhardt Jr. says.
“But just how much better everything is for me right now is overwhelming.
“I’m proud of being able to go out and get five top 10s in six races and things like that. I’ve never had those statistics. I felt like I was that type of guy, but I wasn’t able to make it happen. I’m enjoying that so much and I’m humbled by it.
“So you might not think that I’m as hungry for the win in how I talk and act. It’s in there. But I’m just so humbled by everything and how things have been going that right now I’m just trying to see the picture clearly and trying to make sure continue to do my job and do it well.”
If Earnhardt Jr. doesn’t win Sunday, the next three races are at Phoenix, Talladega and Richmond – all places where he’s won before. When that next victory comes, Earnhardt Jr. knows he’ll have some people he’ll want to congratulate the way his father congratulated him here eight years ago.
“There will be a lot of appreciation for the company that I drive for now, the team that I work with now for getting me there, for giving me that opportunity and giving me that chance,” he said.
“The first thing I’ll want to do is shake my guys’ hands and make sure they’re satisfied and happy and that everything is going (how) they want it to go.”