Long droughts without going to Victory Lane have become common for NASCAR's ever popular Dale Earnhardt Jr. But signals—if I dare say—are pointing toward another one coming to an end.
The longest streak of futility in Earnhardt's career came between wins at Michigan International Speedway in 2008 and 2012. That gap between checkered flags and sprayed champagne reached some 143 races and spanned the worst seasons statistically Earnhardt had ever endured. And unbelievably, the struggles came when Earnhardt joined Hednrick Motorsports—essentially NASCAR's version of the New York Yankees.
Fortunately, Earnhardt's marketing prowess didn't falter, and team owner Rick Hendrick gave the driver of the No. 88 a long hook to get the performance back to where it should have been.
Of course, it wasn't always this way for Earnhardt. The Michigan win in 2012—a race he dominated by leading one-half of the race's total laps—was the 19th of Earnhardt's career. In his first seven seasons in the Sprint Cup Series, Earnhardt logged 17 of his career wins and was a bona fide championship contender down the stretch of both the 2003 and 2004 seasons.
Earnhardt's 2013 campaign has been winless early on, but several factors are pointing toward the idea of the No. 88 on the verge of breaking through once again.
First, NASCAR's new Gen-6 race car design is playing more to the comfort zone of Earnhardt's personal driving style. Next, the setups so successfully used in 2013 by Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson seem to be translating more than ever into Earnhardt's car. And last, Earnhardt has been markedly fast only to have strange gremlins and unexpected mechanical issues sit him back.
Earnhardt Finding Comfort Zone with NASCAR's Gen-6 Car
You didn't have to ask Earnhardt if he was a fan of NASCAR's now-defunct model of race car used from 2007 to 2012. His on-track statistics told the story.
The 2007 campaign—his final season driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc.—generated the fewest top-10 finishes since Earnhardt's rookie season and became the first season where he went winless since entering the Cup series full time.
But Earnhardt, as he told Sporting News in January, also made it clear the "Car of Tomorrow" race car design used by NASCAR just never clicked for him.
"The COT was very frustrating," Earnhardt said. "It was a very stubborn car and when we tried to really go to work on the car, it wasn't giving you a lot good feedback and you wouldn't get a lot of good results on the changes."
Both he and his team looked to finally be getting a good idea on how to approach the car in 2012, and that learning curve hasn't missed a beat in 2013. In fact, Earnhardt's knocked on the door of victory with top-three finishes in three races this season.
After 14 races driving the Gen-6 in 2013, Earnhardt is on pace to match or break his season line from a year ago despite reliability issues that have hurt his finishes at several races.
Reliability Issues, Not Handling, Have Been Earnhardt's Main Opponents
Aside from a mostly dismal outing at Martinsville Speedway in April where Earnhardt finished two laps down in 24th, the worst finishes of the year for the No. 88 have come when the car simply suffered a mechanical failure.
Battery issues a week after Martinsville during the race at Texas Motor Speedway may have been the most frustrating for the team. Earnhardt started sixth during that race before quickly dropping to 12th by lap 20. But his car soon started to handle well and by the race's halfway point Earnhardt had moved to third.
Just laps later, however, the main battery on the No. 88 died and miscommunication led to several mistakes on pit road while trying to fix the problem. Earnhardt wound up 29th.
Earnhardt wasn't showing nearly the same speed at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May, but there was still an outside chance that some pit strategy (like that used by eventual race winner Kevin Harvick) could have moved the No. 88 forward. Those hopes were lost when Earnhardt's car belched smoke on the backstretch and headed for the garage with terminal engine damage.
Leaving out those poor runs, Earnhardt would be averaging a finish of 7.2. Teammate and current points leader Jimmie Johnson has grown a sizable points advantage averaging a finish of 8.1.
Success of Teammate Jimmie Johnson Starting to Transfer
Earnhardt has been garage-mates with Johnson at the Hendrick team facility for several years now (the HMS teams of Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon share an adjacent building), but realizing the potential and replicating the success of the five-time champion hasn't occurred in his No. 88. A reason for that has been the driving style differences between the two drivers not allowing identical setups to be typically used.
In 2013, that seems to be evolving a bit and translating some to what Earnhardt needs in a race car—even if not directly.
"I get to lean on them and I get to know exactly what's happening under the hood, and I can learn and use that to my advantage," Earnhardt said after finishing third at Pocono on a day where the No. 48 and No. 88 looked to be the strongest cars in the field. "When it's good for Jimmie, it's equally as good for us in an indirect way."
Though Johnson may seek a different feel in a race car, there's little doubt that adapting to the No. 48's way of doing business is a smart move. That has rarely been a struggle for Earnhardt thanks to crew chief Steve Letarte having a longstanding close relationship with Johnson's crew chief Chad Knaus, but the teamwork among the two seems to be improving.
Knaus said as much after Pocono.
"As the (Pocono) weekend progressed (the No. 48 and No. 88) definitely merged closer to one another," Knaus said. "(...) As practice went and the evolution of looking at all of our teammates' notes we were able to kind of pull some good from everybody and apply that to the No. 48 and I know the No. 88 did the same."
Johnson's start to 2013 has already included three race wins, tied for the most so far in the series. For Earnhardt to work closer with that team—plus continue to develop knowledge of the Gen-6 design and avoid mechanical failure—should mean that a checkered flag of his own is in sight, too.
Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter @GeoffreyMiller.
Quotes, unless otherwise noted, used in this column were gathered first hand from NASCAR post-race press conference transcripts.