CONCORD, N.C. — Some of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s earliest NASCAR memories came at Charlotte Motor Speedway and he hopes to add another big one by winning the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday night.
Earnhardt grew up watching his late father, Dale Earnhardt, race here more than 30 years ago and has long wanted to win NASCAR’s longest race as he dad accomplished three times, the last in 1993.
“I want to win a points race here so bad because we live just right down the road,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I’ve been coming here since I’ve been a kid.”
Dale Jr. has come close, most notably in 2011 when he broke free from a late restart to take the lead. He got the white flag just fine, then ran out of gas on the front straightaway and coasted through the final turn before Kevin Harvick passed him for the win. Earnhardt finished seventh, his sixth top-10 finish in the Memorial Day weekend race.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has won the All-Star race here before, in 2000. He kept the strong showing going a week later when he won his only pole at Charlotte. In the race, though, Earnhardt faded to fourth behind winner Matt Kenseth.
“We’ve had some good cars, but not anywhere near enough,” he said this week. “There are a lot of other tracks where I think, ‘Man, we were really close’ or the car was fast enough. But I’ve never really had a car here that I thought we had it, we were walking away and we gave it away.”
This might be the time, though.
Earnhardt is off to one of his most consistent starts. His No. 88 Chevrolet took the season-opening Daytona 500 and he’s barely slowed down since. He followed the Daytona win with second-place showings at Phoenix and Las Vegas. He was third in Martinsville, added another runner-up finish at Darlington and was fifth behind winning Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon at Kansas two weeks ago.
Most eyes at Charlotte will be awaiting Kurt Busch’s arrival after the former NASCAR champion competes at the Indianapolis 500 earlier Sunday. The Double has been a focus heading into motorsports’ biggest weekend of the year and Earnhardt is among many NASCAR drivers who will be watching how Busch does.
Harvick, who with Joey Logano leads NASCAR drivers with two Sprint Cup wins this season, is seeking his third 600 win in the past four.
While he was the beneficiary of Earnhardt’s dry gas tank three years back, Harvick powered away from Kasey Kahne with 11 laps left a year ago. That’s was in his last season with Richard Childress Racing. Harvick feels even more energized about his chances to win since moving to Stewart-Haas Racing this season.
Harvick believes he’s never had as many resources or people pointed in the same direction as he does now. “
So you just have to ride the wave and try and keep getting better,” he said.
This could also be the week when six-time series champion Jimmie Johnson breaks through for his first win this season. Johnson’s been steady if not spectacular all year long, both on the race track and about patiently answering those who question his winless start.
“If I win, then I’m winning too much. If I’m not winning, then it’s ‘Why aren’t you winning?’ So I can’t do it right either way,” Johnson said with a smile.
Those worries may be lifting: Johnson will start up front Sunday night after capturing his first pole of the season.
Earnhardt will start 10th and he’s concentrating on keeping his car in one piece and in contention before hitting that final stretch. If the No. 88 is near the top, Earnhardt knows his desire for a landmark win at a very special track will take over.
“The 600 would be in the top five of my favorite wins if I can get that this weekend,” he said.