Dale Earnhardt Jr. looks to break through at Charlotte in his final 600

Photo by Harold Hinson Photography

By Yvonne Jones, Staff Writer

CONCORD, N.C. – It’s the last call for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win a Coca-Cola 600. And with the event in the backyard of the retiring driver, he wants it bad.

The native of nearby Kannapolis, North Carolina, who is set to hang it up at season’s end, will get his final chance on Sunday evening at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He has never won a points-paying race there for that matter.

“Winning the 600 would be awesome,” said Earnhardt, driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet. “Charlotte is our home track and I haven’t won a points race there. So, I would like to win there, but there is a long list – any track that we haven’t won at would be great.”

NASCAR’s most popular driver for the 14th-straight year, Earnhardt won the 2000 All-Star Race, a 70-lap exhibition event known then as The Winston. But the track that holds so many of his early memories, including his first Cup start (1999) and pole victory (2000) has eluded him when it matters most.

“Some of the first memories of being at a 1.5-mile race track that is here at Charlotte,” said Earnhardt, the son of late seventh-time champ and Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt Sr. “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.”

He said as a kid his 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.” Earnhardt Sr. won five times at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the Cup series from 1975-2000.

In 33 Cup starts, Earnhardt Jr. has 12 top 10s – six of them top 5s – while leading 360 laps. His best finish is third, doing so twice (2004, 2015).

“So, been coming here a long time and have never won a point race here,” he said. “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 appeared headed for the win in NASCAR’s longest race in 2011, but ran out of gas on the last lap and allowed Kevin Harvick to steal one. He said on Thursday that “it doesn’t really weigh on me that me” but that it was tough to get over for a few weeks. He does recall fondly his first ever race at CMS in ‘99, when he finished 16th.

“We’ve had some close ones, but the way we ran out of the gate as a rookie, we ran pretty good,” he said. “We led a lot of laps that night and came up short on the victory, but I thought that this would be a good track for us, but since the repave, for whatever reason it’s really been tough for me.”

“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.  But, we will keep digging this weekend and see what we can make out of this weekend.”

After getting eliminated from the final round of the All-Star Race last weekend, Earnhardt was 22nd in the first practice on Thursday.

“We’ve got some practice time,” said Earnhardt, who later qualified 19th for Sunday’s race. “We really ran short last week on practice time, so I’m anxious to get in there and practice and see what we can do.

“We’ve got a completely different set-up. So, hopefully it doesn’t go like it did last week. It shouldn’t. And let’s hope it doesn’t.”

Earnhardt has a resource in Hendrick Motorsports teammate and seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who holds the track record at Charlotte with eight victories – four in the Coca-Cola 600. Johnson also leads all active Cup drivers in laps led at Charlotte with 1,895 in 31 starts. He won the last event there, the October 500-mile event, which sent him into the third round of the playoffs.

So how much is Earnhardt leaning on Johnson, who finished third in last week’s All-Star Race?

“A lot,” Earnhardt admitted. “We totally eighty-sixed all that stuff we ran last week and we put in Jimmie’s set-up we just like him. Greg [Ives, Earnhardt’s crew chief] and Chad [Knaus, Johnson’s crew chief] 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.”

“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.  Yeah, we are leaning on them pretty hard this weekend considering how we ran and how they ran last weekend at the All-Star race, we are leaning on them pretty hard.”

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series will return to the 1.5-mile oval on Oct. 8 – two days before Earnhardt turns 43 – for the Bank of America 500, but taking care of business in 600-mile event race would be special. It would also be the first victory this year for Earnhardt, who is in danger of missing the playoffs in his final go-around.

“Any win this year would be good,” Earnhardt said. “But if I had to pick, winning the 600 would mean a lot. I always went to that race as a little kid, so I like to win at the places where I spent tons of time growing up and that was one of them.”

 

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