Jerry Bonkowski, NASCAR Correspondent
Dale Earnhardt Jr. earns small steps toward perhaps breaking his regular season winless streak
CONCORD, N.C. – On a night that he finally (kind of) won not just one but two races – albeit a 20-lap segment of the much larger 90-lap Sprint All-Star Race and the preceding 40-lap Sprint Showdown earlier in the evening – you would think Dale Earnhardt Jr. would have been celebrating Saturday at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Both wins were small steps, yet at the same time, winning anything are giant steps for someone whose current winless streak in regular season races now sits at 140 heading into next Sunday's Coca-Cola 600.
As it turned out, Earnhardt's Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jimmie Johnson, won the All-Star event, capping off what has been nothing short of an incredible week for the five-time Cup champ that:
* Began with a win last Saturday at Darlington, which also happened to be Rick Hendrick's 200th Cup win as a team owner.
* Continued Thursday with Johnson's team winning the Pit Crew Challenge.
* And then the five-time Cup champ earned a third All-Star win, tying a record shared by HMS teammate Jeff Gordon and the late Dale Earnhardt.
I'm proud of our efforts tonight.
Amid all of Johnson's celebration, something caught my eye that made me pause: Junior's brief post-race TV interview actually seemed more somber than celebratory.
Earnhardt had nothing to be ashamed about, ultimately finishing fifth in the All-Star Race, but watching and listening to him afterward – while he watched his teammate enjoying the spoils of victory – made me think just how hard it must be for Junior to continue wearing that winless streak on his sleeve.
He may talk a good game, but the look in his eyes belied the frustration that he must wake up with every race day morning, wondering if by the end of that day, will he finally at long last have something to celebrate – or will it sadly be much more of the same.
"It was a lot of fun and really was a good weekend," Earnhardt said. "The fans, they had an awesome crowd here. But the race was good. We worked on the car all night. I'm proud of our efforts tonight and look forward to next weekend because we've got a good car we're bringing back."
While the words that came out of his mouth said one thing, Earnhardt's body language seemed to say something else like, "Why can't that (Johnson in victory lane) be me? Why does it always have to be someone else to win at the end?"
I'm not saying Earnhardt was envious or disappointed that Johnson won and not himself, but it was telling with the way Junior looked down at the ground while answering the interviewer's questions, seemed to nervously shuffle his feet and appeared a combination of shy, disappointed, frustrated and wanting to be anywhere else than where he was at that particular time.
I can understand if he is frustrated, but to finish fifth at a place that has meant so much to him and his late father over the years is something to rejoice about. Given how strong Earnhardt's car looked all night, he should come back to Charlotte Motor Speedway for next Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 ready to dominate like the way he did in the Showdown, where he lead all 40 laps to win and transfer into the All-Star Race.
That's right, Earnhardt actually earned his way into the evening's main event – and didn't even need the fan vote to get him in there.
"This is all about just going fast right out of the gate," Earnhardt said after the Showdown win. "I think our car is pretty good, that's what we learned. I'm grateful to have the opportunity to have a lot of fun. We'd love to win a million dollars (first place in the All-Star Race). We're pumped up."
There's one other thing to keep in mind: Earnhardt's long winless streak almost came to an end in last year's Coke 600. He was leading the field and headed to the checkered flag until his car sputtered and sadly ran out of fuel on the frontstretch, just a few hundred yards away from the finish line.
If anything, CMS owes Junior a big one. Will it give him payback next Sunday?
While Saturday night's All-Star event was a non-points paying competition – and even if Junior would have won the whole thing instead of Johnson – the fact remains that come Sunday morning, Junior still has that 140-race winless monkey on his back.
Will tasting victory again Saturday – even though it didn't count – help Earnhardt finally become the guy who does wind up first at the end of a regular points-paying race for the first time in almost four years?
Hopefully it will, because not only do I feel for Earnhardt and what he's endured for so long, but quite frankly, I want to see a different side of him in a post-race TV interview. I'm tired of him looking somber afterward. Instead, I want to see him go wild-crazy, hooting and hollering, hugging everyone and just enjoying one of the greatest and most relief-releasing days of his life.
After enduring what he has for so long, Junior has earned the right to let loose in a big way. He could partially taste that feeling Saturday.
Now all he has to do is win a race that counts.