CONCORD, N.C. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. has already won the Daytona 500 — twice. Next on his to-do list in terms of professional achievements is certainly a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.
But what about after that?
It’s safe to say a win in NASCAR’s longest race, the Coca-Cola 600 at his home track of Charlotte Motor Speedway, is somewhere near the top.
"This is definitely a race I’d love to win," said Earnhardt, who grew up a few miles from CMS in the small mill town of Kannapolis, N.C. "I want to win a points race here so bad because we live just right down the road. I’ve been coming here since I’ve been a kid. I remember sitting up in the press box watching qualifying for the ’83 race, and that was probably one of my first real memories of going to a Cup event. Once they built those condos over there in (turns) 1 and 2, we never missed a race and we watched a lot of them over there in the mid-’80s and early ’80s.
"We watched a lot of races over on the last corner of the road course up on the hill with most of our family and all the Eurys and everybody. We just always came here, and it’s frustrating that I haven’t won a race here other than the all-star event."
While Earnhardt’s father, the late Dale Earnhardt Sr., went to Victory Lane in five points races at the 1.5-mile speedway, Earnhardt Jr.’s lone win here came in the non-points Sprint All-Star Race as a Sprint Cup Series rookie in 2000.
Junior is 0-for-28 in points races at his home track.
"We’ve had some good cars but not anywhere near good enough," said Earnhardt, who with a lap of 193.264 mph was fastest among 45 cars in Thursday’s lone Sprint Cup practice ahead of Thursday night’s Coca-Cola qualifying.
"There are a lot of other racetracks where I think, ‘Man we were really close’ or the car was fast enough. But I’ve never really had a car here that I thought we had it, we were walking away and we gave it away. We always seem to get outrun here, but hopefully this weekend we can change that."
Earnhardt Jr. came painfully close to finally snaring a Coke 600 trophy in 2011, when he led on the final lap before running out of gas. Kevin Harvick went to Victory Lane while Earnhardt Jr. coasted across the finish line in seventh.
"I sure would love to win one here," Earnhardt Jr. said. "It’s been very difficult to do. The 600 would be in the top five of my favorite wins if I can get that this weekend."
Earnhardt Jr. finished fourth in last Saturday’s Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte but complained over his team radio about significant handling issues with his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy. NASCAR’s most popular driver is in a different, newer No. 88 car this weekend, and crew chief Steve Letarte doesn’t expect his driver to be at a disadvantage.
"I don’t think those issues were that big of a deal," Letarte said. "It was the same issue that everybody in the garage fights. The beauty of drivers is they only know what they have out the windshield, and we had a fourth-place car there, so there were three guys that definitely had better cars than us, and that’s what we’re going to try to focus on for the 600."
Letarte, who is in his fourth and final year with Earnhardt Jr. before moving to the broadcast booth next season, agrees with his driver that a Coca-Cola 600 victory this weekend would be big.
"I’m just a racer at heart. I’ll win any race. Any race I’ll take," Letarte said. "A trophy’s a trophy but Charlotte’s Charlotte. Without a doubt, winning over here would be great. It’s close to the shop, you see it all the time, it’s Memorial Day weekend with National Guard on the car.
"There’s just a lot of things that would make it a special race (to win). But all of these tracks I’ve gone to for a lot of years, so winning at any of them would be special."