BRISTOL — It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., still mired in the longest winless streak of his career, is inching closer to victory lane.
Off to the best start of his career, Junior sits fourth in NASCAR Sprint Cup points through the first three races of the season and hits one of his most consistent tracks in Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend.
“The season’s started off really good,” Earnhardt said prior to Friday’s first Sprint Cup practice session. “We had a good run at Daytona, struggled a little bit at Phoenix but we still got a decent finish out of it. We had a pretty good car last week. We stayed out of trouble and some other guys had some difficulties and we’ve been able to capitalize on that and get a pretty good spot in the standings after three weeks.
“Bristol’s been a pretty good track for me. I have felt pretty well here and been pretty consistent at Bristol. I look forward to continuing that this weekend.”
Last week in Las Vegas, Earnhardt led 70 of the first 73 laps — more laps than he led during his rebound 2011 campaign – coming away with a 10th place finish after being shuffled backwards due to mid-race pit strategy.
“I think I was disappointed that we didn’t come away with a better finish,” said Earnhardt. “We ran good there last year and went out and got out there and led the first part of the race. I wasn’t as surprised as the rest of the world was. I felt like that’s how we wanted to run and could run there and was disappointed that we finished where we did because we let a lot of cars that we outran all day long beat us and that’s really frustrating.”
Unlike past seasons where the frustration stemmed from poor results on the track, the new Earnhardt is showing excitement on and off the track because he is inching closer to the ultimate result. Last season’s finish and success making the Chase after a lengthy absence has given NASCAR’s most popular driver a new outlook.
“You work pretty hard every week, you can’t take it easy in these things or you’ll get your butt whooped pretty bad,” he said.
Of the top-10 drivers in the Sprint Cup point standings, Earnhardt averages the best finish (11.7) at Bristol. Last spring, Earnhardt finished 11th with a 16thplace finish in the fall.
Since his August sweep in 2004, he has totaled eight top-ten placements at the half-mile. He will roll off the grid 18th in Sunday’s Food City 500.
“I admire the track for how tough it was and how tenacious the races were and hard the driving was and how difficult it was on drivers,” said Earnhardt. “It’s just such a unique racetrack. It’s one of a kind. I think it has proven its popularity through its ticket sales over the years and its ability to grow and become what it is today.
“When you look at pictures of it when it was first built and all through the seventies and eighties even and to see what it is today, it’s amazing the progress and expansion this little track in Tennessee has.”
As high as his confidence is now, a win would arguably put Earnhardt Jr. and his team in a position he hasn’t seen since 2008 at Hendrick Motorsports.
Given his success this season and the way he ran a year ago, the monkey is close to leaving his back.
“I do know that when you do win a race, your confidence is way up, the team feels real good about itself and a lot of times consistent good finishes come after that,” Earnhardt said. “Opportunities to win, maybe, and maybe more wins. It definitely helps your confidence a lot when you get in victory lane. Your team feeds off that for a few more weeks and it benefits you.”
There’s no better place than Bristol, where Junior looks to maintain his stellar start.
Momentum continues for Biffle
When the Food City 500 starts today, Sprint Cup points leader Greg Biffle will lead the field to the green flag.
Biffle, who has finished third in each of the first three races of the season, turned a lap of 125.215 mph for his first pole in 19 attempts at Bristol after three previous second place starts.
“It was a huge thrill ride,” said Biffle. “It is only a good thrill ride if it turns out to be good. … The key is to not overdrive it and as soon as the car turns in the corner you have to get back to the throttle.
“I went back to the gas fairly early and was a little worried about it making the rest of the corner. It got loose up off both ends because I went to the gas so early in the middle of the corner. I was just pushing the envelope as much as I could.”
A.J. Allmendinger posted his first top-10 start of the year with the second spot, followed by Ryan Newman, who will tally his 14th top-10 at Bristol for his career, with Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski rounding out the front five.
Regan Smith, Aric Almirola, Carl Edwards, Joey Logano and Kasey Kahne wound out the first ten on the grid.
Newman followed a quick qualifying turn with a lap at 121.883 mph to pace the Sprint Cup field in the final Happy Hour practice Saturday as teams shifted towards race trim.
Kyle Busch, David Reutimann, Keselowski and Kahne wound out the five fastest in the session.