In the postrace press conference at Martinsville, a reporter asked Dale Earnhardt Jr. if he was back, and Junior admitted that he didn’t know.
So while everybody got a rise out of Dale Jr.’s runner-up finish last week, it would be wise for them to hold off on stockpiling champagne for Junior’s next win. If recent NASCAR history is any judge, the trip to Victory Lane that everybody’s been waiting for could be a good two years away just as easily as it could come on Saturday at Texas.
This is about the worst time in NASCAR history to correspond success with wins. Jimmie Johnson’s victories on the way to a five-peat combined with Kyle Busch’s wins have created an atmosphere not seen in sports since Michael Jordan in his heyday with the Bulls. Just as there’s a distinguished list of names (Ewing, Malone, Barkley, etc.) who left the NBA sans rings because they happened to play in the same era as Jordan, there’s a similar list in Sprint Cup whose career numbers will be stunted because they just happened to compete at the wrong time.
Nothing proves this point more than three drivers in their prime who each essentially went two years between wins, even as they were earning spots in the Chase.
* Jeff Gordon went 66 races between victories before winning earlier this year at Phoenix.
* Carl Edwards went 70 races without a win before he broke through last fall at Phoenix.
* Greg Biffle went winless 64 straight times before finding Victory Lane at Pocono last year.
Junior’s winless streak is about to hit two milestones. If he doesn’t win at Texas it’ll reach 100. And if he doesn’t break through before the Sprint All-Star Race next month, he’ll have to get in via the fan vote, because his 10-year exemption for winning the 2000 race has expired. Having to be voted in will be uncomfortable for Junior, just like all the years I saw him at the Myers Brothers Luncheon at Cipriani in New York accepting kudos for being well-liked while others earned awards for actually performing.
Being uncompetitive is frustrating. But it has at least allowed Junior, for one of the only times in his life, to sink into the background. If he starts clocking off top-10 finishes on a regular basis but can’t win, he will be back under the microscope like never before.
It’s blatantly unfair. But, then again, it’s never been fair to be Dale Earnhardt Jr.