Dale Earnhardt Jr. craves victory in Charlotte

Jim Utter
The Charlotte Observer

Concord, N.C. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. has won a lot of money at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

But he's never won a race that counted toward a Sprint Cup series championship.

He's come close — running out of gas while in the lead on the final lap of the 2011 Coca-Cola 600. This season, he said, close isn't good enough.

"It's been on my list for a very long time. This is our home track. We live 20, 30 minutes down the road," Earnhardt said this week. "I've been coming here ever since I was a little kid and just dreamed of being able to go into Victory Circle after that 600 and celebrating.

"I'm really working hard and think we've got a great shot."

Earnhardt's only victory at Charlotte in any NASCAR series came in the 2000 All-Star Race, when he held off Dale Jarrett for what was then a $500,000 first prize.

He has never finished better than third in a Cup series race at CMS. In the 600 in 2011, several drivers including Earnhardt were battling for the win in the final laps in what became a fuel-mileage battle.

Shortly after taking the white flag at the start of the final lap, Earnhardt ran out of fuel.

By Turn 3 Kevin Harvick, who was also close on fuel, inherited the lead and took the victory. Earnhardt coasted home seventh.

"It's such a tough race track. I learned that watching dad (Dale Earnhardt Sr.) race here year after year through the late '80s and into the '90s," he said. "It was always a fickle, hit-and-miss kind of a thing as far as the balance and the set-up of the car and the speed that he would have.

"Sometimes he would show up and be able to really get relatively competitive, and other times they would struggle."

The same has been true for Earnhardt Jr.

Early in his Cup career, while at Dale Earnhardt Inc., Earnhardt had consistent success at Charlotte. But since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, he's finished in the top 10 three times in 15 races, and he and his No. 88 Chevrolet team seemed to struggle again on the track in last weekend's 110-lap Sprint All-Star Race.

"We didn't run really that well in the All-Star Race. We had a good segment early but definitely struggled once we got further back than third in the dirty air," he said. "I think everybody fought that pretty bad.

"We're coming with a different set-up, different car, different route and see if we can improve. I'm optimistic about it."

One thing in Earnhardt's favor this season, much like last year, is that he already has an early-season victory so he and his team know they are already locked in the championship Chase.

Getting locked into the Chase early generally allows teams more freedom to experiment — something Earnhardt hopes might provide him an even bigger opportunity Sunday to win at Charlotte.

"It's just a real hard track to master as far as balance and set-up of the race car goes and it's always kind of been that way for me," he said.

"It's 600 miles. So, once you're strapped in that thing and it's not working, it's a long night."

Race day

Site: 6 p.m. Sunday, Charlotte Motor Speedway (oval, 1.5 miles), Concord, N.C.

TV: Fox

Distance: 600 miles (400 laps)

Last year: Jimmie Johnson raced to the first of his four 2014 victories. The six-time series champion won the race for the fourth time and has a record seven Cup victories at the track.