Jerry Bonkowski - NASCAR Correspondent
CONCORD, N.C. -- What do a shot glass, eyedropper and test tube all have in common?
If they were each packed full of Sunoco Racing Fuel, they potentially could have spelled the difference between victory and the unfortunate disappointment and defeat Dale Earnhardt Jr. suffered in last year's Coca-Cola 600.
It was THAT close.
How many of us remember – something I'm sure Earnhardt fans would much rather forget, though – the way Junior came out of the final turn at Charlotte Motor Speedway in last year's 600, in the lead and headed towards what appeared assured victory just about 1,000 feet away.
And then came those fateful words on both the radio and TV broadcasts: "Oh no, Junior is slowing. Looks like he's out of gas!"
Had there not been two extra laps in last year's green-white-checker edition of the 600, Earnhardt would have broken what, at the time, was a 104-race winless streak. Sadly for him and his fans, however, the streak did not end and has now reached 140 races without a trip to victory lane heading into Sunday's longest race of the year on the NASCAR schedule.
In a season that has seen him with two runner-up finishes (Daytona and Richmond) and two other third-place showings (back-to-back at Fontana and Martinsville), Earnhardt has become one of the most consistent and top-performing drivers on the Sprint Cup circuit, with top-10 finishes in eight of the first 11 races thus far.
In addition, Earnhardt has ranked no lower than fifth in the weekly standings (he's currently third coming into Sunday's race), and his worst single race finish thus far in 2012 has been just 17th, which happened at the last regular season Cup race, Darlington, two weeks ago.
With apologies to Forrest Gump, as a driver this season, Earnhardt has gone from being like a box of chocolates, never knowing what kind of performance you’re going to get from him behind the wheel, to being a win waiting to happen.
And what better place for that elusive win to happen than in Sunday's Coca-Cola 600, a race that Earnhardt has a score to settle with in light of last year's disappointing outcome.
"You definitely feel like one got away; or when you come close to winning a race like that, you definitely think about what you might have (or) could have done different, or if only this or if only that (happened)," Earnhardt said.
Alas, Earnhardt failed to win (Kevin Harvick streaked by him at the last second to take the checkered flag).
"It was tough to come so close last year and not win the race," he said. "My initial reaction was that I was happy that we actually rolled across the finish lane in seventh. 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 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. 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."
Junior is being modest with that last statement. For the most part, his team is significantly better in 2012 than it was in 2011, 2010, 2009 and even 2008. He has a winning attitude perhaps more so this year than any time since he's joined Hendrick Motorsports.
That's why you can expect to see a significantly different Junior in Sunday's 600 than in years past, particularly last year's embarrassing outcome. If there's one thing I've learned about Earnhardt over the years, he does not take defeat well, but particularly when he comes so close to winning, only to come up short like in last year's race.
Given that he hasn't won a race in nearly four years – and just two races in the last six – I predict Junior will come into Sunday's event locked and loaded, in the hunt for the prize that has eluded him for so long.
While he can only control what is in his control, you'd better believe Earnhardt not only is seeking payback from last year's outcome in the 600, he's also ready to bring this winless streak to an end once and for all.
And while this is a weekend for remembering our fallen troops, past and present, what could be more All-American than to see Dale Earnhardt Jr., wearing the colors of the National Guard, finally go from also-ran to winner once again.
"If the car is good enough and we’re good enough and do everything we need to do, we’ll be right there with an opportunity to win a race and that’s what you have to concentrate on," Earnhardt said.