(Eds: Updates with details and comments. With AP Photos.)By PETE IACOBELLIAP Sports Writer
Dale Earnhardt Jr. says he’s gone faster at every track he’s raced at this season – and he’s certain Darlington Raceway won’t be any different.
Earnhardt will try for his first Sprint Cup victory at the Southern 500 on Saturday night. He’s also hoping to end a nearly four-year winless drought on the circuit stretching back to his first year driving for powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports.
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Earnhardt’s nearly four-year winless drought grew to 139 races when he finished ninth last week at Talladega.
”We want to get to victory lane and we’re getting closer,” Earnhardt said Thursday.
Earnhardt has seen the improvement in his No. 88 Chevy team all season long and the results have backed that up. He’s third in the points and has had eight top-10 finishes in the 10 races this season.
”I think we’re a faster team this year,” Earnhardt said. ”We’ve been running better everywhere this year so I’m expecting to step it up a little bit and challenge for the win” at Darlington.
That hasn’t come so easy for Earnhardt, who has not had the love affair his late father had with the old country track. Dale Earnhardt won nine times on the track ”Too Tough To Tame,” second all-time behind NASCAR Hall-of-Famer David Pearson’s 10 Darlington wins.
The best Dale Jr. managed here are a couple of fourths in March 2002 and May 2008, his first year driving for Hendrick Motorsports. It was a few weeks later when Earnhardt Jr. took the checkered flag for the last time, winning at Michigan for his lone victory in 154 starts for owner Rick Hendrick.
Earnhardt won 17 times driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc. before joining Hendrick.
Darlington is unlike any other NASCAR track, Earnhardt said, where conditions chance from lap to lap because of how quickly tires lose their grip. A repaving of the track in 2008 increased speeds and consistency. However, Earnhardt said the track’s wearing down a bit. ”It’s looking like the old Darlington where people are sliding everywhere,” he said.
Not the repaved surfaced helped Earnhardt, who went 27th, 11th and 14th at Darlington the past three years.
Back in 2010 after crashing his primary and backup cars in Southern 500 practice, Earnhardt talked about how the track’s maddening corners, narrow straightaways and tire-chewing surface would one day drive him from the sport. ”`ll probably come here when I’m 45, run a race and say, `The hell with it,”’ Junior said then.
Earnhardt was heartened with last year’s run when he had a top 10 going before a pit-road violation led to a pass-through penalty that dropped him back to 14th.
That showing, plus his performances this year have Earnhardt much more positive about his chance to succeed at Darlington. The reason? Good, ol’ fashioned hard work, Earnhardt said.
”It’s kind of cliche and you hear that a lot, but we’re really not doing anything different,” he said. ”The guys just work really hard in the offseason and we start this season off and we’re faster. We don’t really know why.”
Earnhardt’s even running well in practice. He said he spent the past two days testing at New Hampshire and found ”a lot of speed there,” he said. ”Just looking forward to every week.”
Earnhardt, voted NASCAR’s most popular driver the past nine years, hasn’t lost the fans’ adulation despite his winless streak. A few hundred turned out at an area Wal-Mart to cheer their hero, snap phone pictures and get autographs.
Earnhardt also unveiled a new paint scheme on the JR Motorsports car Cole Whitt drives in the Nationwide Series to promote its sponsor, Mountain Dew. There’s also a website where fans can weigh in on what Earnhardt should do. First question: Beard or no beard?
Earnhardt, whose face was a little scraggly when meeting fans, smiled when the crowd shouted loudly for him to bring back the beard. He said he grows it in the winter to keep his face warm, then shaves it once temperatures heat up. ”It’s a guy thing,” he said.
Maybe Earnhardt’s smooth, clean face will cut down resistance and give the No. 88 a tick more speed this weekend at Darlington.
”It’s one of the hardest tracks we race on, one of the most respected tracks we race on and to get a trophy from Darlington is on top of a lot of drivers’ lists, including mine,” he said.