Brooklyn, Mich. — Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s previous trips to to Michigan International Speedway came in the midst of long winless streaks.
Twice — in 2008 and 2012 — he snapped those skids at MIS.
This year, there’s no such streak to talk about. Instead, Earnhardt enters Sunday’s Quicken Loans 400 coming off a victory last weekend at Pocono and multiple wins for the first season in 10 years.
“We felt like we’re that kind of team that can go out there and win multiple races and compete very well,” said Earnhardt, who has more top-five finishes (seven) than any other driver over the first 14 races. “I felt for a while now that we were right on the brink of something good, something new, and hopefully that’s what we’re seeing this year.”
Earnhardt, 39, won the Daytona 500 to start the season, followed by a pair of seconds in Phoenix and Las Vegas. He then had three more top-five finishes during a six-race stretch from the end of March until early May.
And you can bet Earnhardt’s fans are loving every second of his success. He has been voted the Sprint Cup’s most popular driver 11 straight years (2003-2013).
“Well, the one thing that stands out to me is the fans’ reaction, especially the stuff on You Tube, and just being able to see that, it’s a bit of an ultimate reward,” Earnhardt said. “To see somebody get that excited and happy about our efforts is a hell of a pat on the back.”
So, how many races can Earnhardt win?
“I just want to win the next one,” said Earnhardt, who has 21 career wins including the 2008 one at MIS that ended a 76-race winless streak and the 2012 race that snapped a 143-race winless stretch. “We have so much fun winning and going to Victory Lane. Last week was so much fun, from the feeling that you get inside and that you have for several hours after that. It’s like the best feeling ever and we want to do it again this weekend.
“I just want to win more races and take care of the car and finish as well as we can, and I think that mentality and making that a reality can win us a championship.”
NASCAR officials put a greater emphasis on winning this year, giving drivers with a win and a top-30 showing in the points race a spot in the 16-car Chase field.
With his two victories this season, Earnhardt is already locked into the 10-race Chase field, and plans to be more aggressive.
“We’ve gambled pretty good, a little more than we typically would after we won Daytona because of the new point system so I think we could even be a bit more aggressive, and Steve (Letarte, crew chief) probably will in certain situations,” Earnhardt said. “We can definitely be more aggressive with our fuel mileage.”
While Earnhardt has enjoyed success at MIS, he also has struggled at times.
He was leading in June last year, running second two-thirds through the race, when a blown engine dropped him to 37th. In August, he was running in the top 10 before a tire problem left him 36th.
“You’ve got to be confident because we ran well here, but at the same time we’ve got some new competitors in the battle,” said Earnhardt, who will start Sunday’s race from the second row after a run of 203.729 mph. “The No. 4 (Kevin Harvick) has been lightning fast every week.
“And, you’ve got a lot of new players and some new cars that are going to be up front trying to compete, and a lot of new challenges that you’re going to have to face that you didn’t face last year or the year before.”
Quicken Loans 400
Track: Michigan International Speedway (oval, 2.0 miles), Brooklyn
Schedule: 1 p.m. Sunday (TNT, noon-4:30 p.m.)
Distance: 400 miles (200 laps)
Tickets: Start at $30 (kids 12 and under, free with adult paid ticket)
Details: mispeedway.com or (800) 354-1010