He hasn’t won since.
“We want to win more races. We want to win numerous races and multiple races in a season,” Earnhardt said. “We want that to be the norm. We want that to be what is expected. When we first started working together we were trying to figure out how to get a 15th-place combination into the top 10 and we were happy when we did.
“Now when we run in the top 10 it’s just another weekend — and what do we have to do to win?”
Whenever NASCAR’s top series comes to Michigan, Earnhardt is at the center of attention. He won at MIS last June after 143 races without a victory. His most recent win before that was also at Michigan in 2008, so the Sprint Cup’s twice-yearly visits to the Irish Hills always seem to present an opportunity for Earnhardt and his No. 88 Chevrolet.
Earnhardt’s victory last year wasn’t a shock. He’d been running well for a while, working his way back among NASCAR’s elite drivers, so after a convincing performance at MIS, stock-car racing’s most popular driver could credibly eye a run at a series championship.
But concussion problems derailed his chances in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and although he began 2013 with five straight top-10 finishes and briefly led the points standings, he’s slipped to fourth since then.
Earnhardt took a step in the right direction with a third-place showing at Pocono last weekend, but the pressure is mounting for him to take advantage of a return to Michigan.
“It’s just a simple race track that has not got a lot of challenges. It’s very easily laid out and understandable for a driver. It really comes down to just getting your car to work,” Earnhardt said. “There are no bumps or bad transitions, there is nothing really that you are out there fighting or worried about or dreading. It’s just a simple race track and very wide.”
Jimmie Johnson has never won a Cup race at MIS, but he enters today’s 400-mile race leading the standings by 51 points over Carl Edwards. Johnson has three victories already this year, and another spot in the Chase looks like a formality.
“A lot can still go wrong if you hit a stretch of bad races. I feel like our wins will lock us in the Chase, but my mind is still on running well and getting ready for the Chase,” Johnson said. “I really am shocked that I’m so far out ahead of everybody.”
Edwards won the pole for today’s race. Earnhardt qualified 12th, and defending Cup champion Brad Keselowski was 16th, one spot ahead of Johnson.
These two weeks — Pocono followed by Michigan — worked out well for Earnhardt last year, and he’d love a repeat.
“I think there are certain teams that are capable of getting behind or being off and climbing their way back up,” said Jeff Gordon, who is 11th in the standings and could use a victory himself. “I think there are certain teams that are just right on the brink of making things really, really good. I thought Junior had a very impressive run last week. He was very competitive and it was great timing for them because this is a track that I know he likes and does well at.”
The 38-year-old Earnhardt says he doesn’t feel any urgency to break through soon.
“I feel pretty young still. I feel like I’m in good shape. I feel young in my mind. I feel like I have good energy,” he said. “I feel like I’m in the best opportunity of my career. There is a ‘seize the moment’ kind of feeling because I’m in such good equipment around such good people. I don’t feel like there is a clock in the background ticking away that is annoying me or anything like that.”
But even though that long losing streak is a thing of the past, Earnhardt realizes the pressure to win never really subsides — especially for a driver whose performance over the last couple years has raised expectations. He has only the two Michigan victories in 192 starts for Hendrick Motorsports after winning 17 times in 291 starts for Dale Earnhardt Inc.
“I think that the perception from you guys is similar to how we feel. We are like a lot of teams trying to find that extra step,” he said. “It’s difficult to win in this sport. It’s really competitive. It’s not much more for us to be able to get to that level to be able to win more.”