CONCORD, N.C. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. “couldn’t have told you what year it was.”
It was 2011 and it was the Coca-Cola 600.
In his fourth year with Hendrick Motorsports, Earnhardt led two laps in the race. On his way to lead a third – the last lap – his No. 88 Chevrolet ran out of gas in Turn 3. He finished seventh as Kevin Harvick went to Victory Lane.
He’s had better finishes before and since, but that was the closest Earnhardt has ever come to winning a Cup points race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“(That race) doesn’t really weigh on me that much,” Earnhardt said on Thursday. “It was tough to get over for a few weeks, but I believe (former crew chief) Steve Letarte might still talk about it today, but a lot of things, a lot of water under the bridge since then.”
Earnhardt said two weeks ago at Kansas Speedway winning tonight’s Coca-Cola 600 is the one box he’d like to check off the most during his retirement tour, which has 25 races remaining in it. Earnhardt will visit nine tracks he hasn’t won at.
“The 600 would be awesome,” Earnhardt said. “Any of them that we haven’t won at would be great. Any win this year, right, would be good. But if I had to pick Charlotte would be … winning the 600 would mean a lot.”
While the tracks in Daytona and Talladega carry a lot of weight in Earnhardt’s history, it’s the 1.5-mile track in his own backyard where he first got a taste of the sport he would one day be the face of.
“I grew up here and went to all the races here when I was a little kid,” Earnhardt said Thursday. “I used to go to the dirt tracks with Dad when I was very small, but the first memories of actually being at a Cup event were here. The Eury’s and the Earnhardt family would park up on the hill of the road course, about the tallest peak of elevation there.
“And we had these plastic cars, Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough, and we would roll them down the hill of the road course and spend the whole weekend there watching Dad race the Xfinity race and the Cup race.”
The 14-time most popular driver watched his father win at Charlotte five times, including three times in the longest race in NASCAR.
But in 33 of his own Cup starts here, Earnhardt hasn’t driven into Victory Lane.
Even Earnhardt can’t quite believe it.
“I thought, considering we’ve had some decent success in the sport, I would have guessed I’d have got a win here in a point race at some point, but it just hasn’t happened,” Earnhardt said. “We’ve had some close ones, but the way we ran out of the gate as a rookie, we ran pretty good.”
Earnhardt made his Cup debut in the Coke 600 on May 30, 1999, starting eighth and finishing 16th. A year later, he claimed his first career pole in the race. Earnhardt led 175 laps before finishing fourth.
“I thought that this would be a good track for us, but since the repave (in 2006), for whatever reason it’s really been tough for me,” Earnhardt said. “We just really haven’t been able to hit on how to get around here. Either how to set the car up or what I’m looking for or what I need to be doing with the car driving it.”
Earnhardt has six top fives at Charlotte, the most recent coming in the 2015 Coke 600. In his 33 starts, he has an average finish of 19th, which is his third worst among active tracks.
Earnhardt’s bumpy retirement tour hasn’t smoothed out during the season’s two-week layover in Charlotte. Last week, Earnhardt’s final start in the All-Star Race ended with him 18th in a field of 20 cars. He start 19th in tonight’s race.
“We totally eighty-sixed all that stuff we ran last week and we put in Jimmie (Johnson’s) set-up, we’re just like him,” Earnhardt said.
If the No. 88 team should lean on anyone, its Johnson’s team, which has won at Charlotte eight times.
“(Crew chiefs) Greg (Ives) and Chad (Knaus) got real close this week and me and Jimmie have been in communication and Jimmie has come by the car a couple of times in practice already looking at notes and printing out our driver traces and trying to figure out whatever we can do to help me,” Earnhardt said. “One of the things about Jimmie that I’ve always thought was pretty cool was he was always open to looking at other drivers traces and adjusting how he drives.
“If he sees a guy go through the corner and does something different with the gas or the brake he will try it. And he encourages me or any other teammate to do the same thing. He comes over with these print outs and says this is what I’m doing with the gas and this is what you are doing and this is where the time is getting lost and maybe try this and that and the other, he is a super teammate. I’m lucky to be able to work in the same shop with him. He has certainly been an influence on my success and my enjoyment in the sport.”
If Johnson’s help turns into the desired win for Earnhardt, it will be only his second top 10 finish of the year. His first came with a fifth-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway, a sister track to Charlotte.