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What would Charlotte win now mean?
After a 140-race winless drought in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Dale Earnhardt Jr. would take a win anywhere.
NASCAR returns to FOX at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Sunday. The green flag drops at 6 p.m. ET, with coverage on FOX beginning at 5:30 p.m. ET.
However, Charlotte Motor Speedway holds special memories for Earnhardt, whose family hails from Kannapolis, N.C., 13 miles north of the track.
His father Dale Earnhardt Sr., won five Cup and three Nationwide series races on the 1.5-mile track. Earnhardt Sr. is also tied with Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson with three victories in the all-star race. And the seven-time champion simply shone in the hooligan qualifiers for the Nationwide races back in the day.
While Earnhardt Jr. won the all-star race in his first attempt, a Charlotte victory in Nationwide or Sprint Cup has eluded the driver. Earnhardt has been close. In his first Coca-Cola 600, Earnhardt won the pole, led a race-high 175 laps but finished fourth – one position behind his father.
Last year, Earnhardt took the lead after a late-race caution sent the Coca-Cola 600 into overtime but then ran out of fuel on the last lap and salvaged a seventh-place showing.
But given the speed his cars have had this season, the chemistry of his team and the success he exhibited in last Saturday’s all-star race – by first winning the Sprint Showdown, transferring into the main event, taking the fourth segment then finishing fifth – with a little luck Earnhardt could be celebrating way into the wee hours on Monday.
“Yeah, it would be awesome to win at Charlotte and give me a trophy from here being that it’s close to the house,” Earnhardt said. “It was tough to come so close last year and not win the race. My initial reaction was that I was happy that we actually rolled across the finish lane in seventh or where I think we finished. I was really relieved that it wasn’t worse than that. And then after a while you start thinking about, 'Oh yeah, we really came close to winning a race.'
“It was really unfortunate there wasn’t just a little bit more gas in the car or whatever to get us to Victory Lane because that would have been a great way to cap off a pretty good weekend. So it was a bit frustrating over time. But we ran good when we came here. I feel like, I’ve said it all year long, that I think we’re a little bit better team than we were last year.”
Earnhardt is being modest. The No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports crew is a much better team than last year. After the first 11 races in 2011, Earnhardt was fourth in the standings, 52 points behind first. He had two top fives and five top-10 finishes, but had led just 40 laps.
In 2012, Earnhardt has four finishes of third or better and eight top 10s in 11 starts. Junior has led more than twice as many laps (86) and at third in the points standings, he trails leader Greg Biffle by just 14 markers.
Jeff Gordon, Earnhardt’s teammate and a four-time champion, has witnessed the change in the driver. Certainly, Gordon realizes the influence of crew chief Steve Letarte, who he worked with first as a car chief and then a crew chief from 2005 to 2010.
“I think just the year that Junior is having and Steve are having, they are really building consistency with some good runs,” Gordon said. “And all that builds confidence. And it just makes your team just that much stronger and allows you to go to the next race with a shot at winning.
“Last year they ran good here, but they were going to win that race on fuel mileage. This year, I think they’ve got a legitimate shot to win it either way. And so I think that’s just based on the teamwork they’ve been building on.”
Earnhardt, who qualified 12th, feels the team picks up momentum each time it returns to a track. While he’s averaging 14.5 on his starts, Junior’s average finish is 8.3. This season on intermediate tracks, he’s averaged a ninth-place finish.
“I feel like just judging on the performance at that particular track the year before that we’ve been better, faster and have had more speed,” Earnhardt said. “And I feel like I got that again this past weekend at the all-star race. Had a good judge of how much better of a race team we are.
“We’re confident. We’re bringing back the same car so we know what kind of race car we’ve got. We know what kind of potential we’ve got and we’re all kind of expecting to improve on some of the things we did last week. We had some things that we learned and we think that we improve on that and even be better than we were last week.
“So, I feel like we should come in and compete this weekend and we’re fortunate and do the right things as far as pit strategy goes, to put ourselves up toward the front like we did last year, we hopefully have enough fuel to get to the finish line.”
Everyone remembers their first time.
For Matt Kenseth, his first career win came in NASCAR’s longest race – the Coca-Cola 600.
“That was a really special night,” said Kenseth, who qualified 20th on Thursday. “Whenever you get your first win in any series, especially in this series, it’s always big – especially at the 600. It’s a special event, so it was a pretty exciting night.”
And it’s hard to believe it was 12 years ago this weekend. For Kenseth, the 2000 Coca-Cola 600 race at Charlotte Motor Speedway was his 18th career start. He was competing against fellow freshman Dale Earnhardt Jr. for rookie honors. Junior, who won his first career Cup race several weeks prior to the 600 at Texas Motor Speedway, had the benefit of running in the all-star race for additional experience on the 1.5-mile track. Kenseth failed to transfer from the qualifier. Earnhardt won the all-star race, too.
“We didn’t even make the all-star race,” Kenseth said. “To come back for the 600 and all the work we did on that car during the week – we actually brought the same car back and was able to be pretty competitive. “
The following week, Earnhardt won his first career Cup pole. Kenseth qualified 21st. Earnhardt led 78 laps in the 600 before an extended rain delay. When the race resumed, he was at the point twice for a total of 97 laps. But a late-race caution with 38 circuits remaining, coupled with a bad set of tires on the No. 8 Chevrolet, dashed Junior’s hope of winning in front of his hometown crowd.
Bobby Labonte regained the lead on the restart, but Kenseth remained in the hunt.
“We were probably gonna have a second- to fourth-place night,” Kenseth said. “Dale Jr. dominated again and they got off on their last set of tires or pit stop and then I remember it was a long night with the rain delay in the middle and all that, and then I just remember running down Bobby Labonte and racing him really hard for that win.”
Kenseth finished 14th in the points standings that season and was named the 2000 rookie of the year. He won the Cup championship three years later. Still, Charlotte remains one of Kenseth’s favorites on the NASCAR circuit. He won the last Cup race here in October but acknowledges the 600-miler presents new challenges as the race transitions from day into night.
“Track conditions can change a lot during the 600 since it can start out hot and sunny which makes the track slick, and that can entirely change by the end of the race,” said Kenseth, who will drive the chassis last raced on April 22 at Kansas Speedway, where he finished fourth. “It’s always challenging but I really like running that entire 600 miles and continuously working on strategy and your cars setup.
“Even though it’s our longest race of the season, I’ve always really enjoyed the 600 miles and just the challenge it presents to teams. It’s always nice to race at Charlotte as well since it’s our home base.”
122: Poles won by the No. 43, 114 of those poles were earned by Richard Petty.
4: Times Kurt Busch has started from 42nd at CMS. His best finish from that position was 12th (2001).
9: Times Jimmie Johnson has qualified third or better at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
4,000: Tires Goodyear brought to the track for the Nationwide Series and Cup races this weekend.
Travis Pastrana on skateboarder wife Lyn-Z’s impression of his Nationwide Series performance and being outraced by women:
"She does (compete) and actually the Nitro Circus, they announce it if I get beat by a girl, and I have every time during the Nitro Circus live shows in Australia,” Pastrana said. “They try to humiliate me all over. Lyn-Z has been doing great. She is probably a better athlete without me around. She's learned a new trick at every single stop they've been to so far. She hadn't learned a lot with me. She's an awesome wife and super supportive, but given this opportunity to kind of go back and not have to worry about taking care of me has been good for her.”
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