KANSAS CITY, Kan. – When Dale Earnhardt Jr. last drove into a Sprint Cup victory lane at a 1.5-mile track, Jimmie Johnson had yet to win his first series title, the Car of Tomorrow had yet to be unveiled and Mark Martin had yet to decide to extend his “Salute to You” tour.
It was July 2005.
Or 107 races ago at 1.5-mile tracks.
Earnhardt heads into Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway, a 1.5-mile track, in need of a strong finish, if not a victory, after his 28th-place finish at Charlotte Motor Speedway last weekend.
Earnhardt trails Brad Keselowski, who owns the eighth and final transfer spot to the third round, by 19 points. That will be challenging to overcome the next two weekends before the Chase field is cut from 12 to eight drivers. A win either at Kansas or next weekend at Talladega Superspeedway would send Earnhardt to the next round.
Most would view Earnhardt the favorite at Talladega since he won there earlier this year and has won the past two restrictor-plate races. Still, the unpredictability of restrictor-plate racing does not mean he is guaranteed to win.
So, his chances of advancing to the next round and continuing his quest for his first Cup title, could hinge on Kansas.
And that leads one back to Earnhardt’s winless streak at 1.5-mile tracks.
His drought defies explanation. It’s not as if Earnhardt hasn’t been close since that 2005 victory at Chicagoland Speedway. He’s had his chances. He was in position to win at Kansas Speedway in May when he restarted on the front row with teammate Jimmie Johnson with six laps to go. Instead, Earnhardt finished third.
Earnhardt was headed for the win in the 2011 Coca-Cola 600 when he ran out of fuel on the final corner of the final lap and finished seventh. That year proved cruel. He was second at Kansas in June and third at Chicagoland in September that year. Other years have been tough. He was runner-up at Las Vegas in 2008 and ’14. He was second at Texas in Nov. 2013. Three times in a five-race stretch from 2006-08, he placed third at Atlanta.
So how does one explain a 10-year drought at a type of track?
“I don’t know,’’ Earnhardt said Friday at Kansas Speedway. “I think as a driver I’m a little bit more consistent at the short tracks and obviously the plate tracks, we run pretty good at.
“I like the mile and a half’s and I run pretty good at them. We are always second, third, fourth or fifth. We are never really the guy that can lock in the win. I mean, I don’t know. It’s just one of them things. I really can’t answer that because we have been one of the more consistent teams in the series over the last five or six years.
“We have maintained a good standing in the points throughout the regular season, so we are running well, finishing well, and we are up front in a lot of these races. But, overall I think that I’m a better short track driver than I am a-mile-and-a-half driver, I don’t know.”
Earnhardt ponders his lack of wins at 1.5-mile tracks and considers what his fate has been.
“It’s just, I don’t know, got to get a little luck,’’ he said. “I know that 10 years of not winning has got a little bit more to do than just luck, but we have been running good enough. We have been up front and been competitive in these races, just those last few restarts getting the right opportunity to start in the right lane. One or two things fall in your favor it puts you in position to get the win.”
Might Sunday be that day for Earnhardt?