Well, we're here.
After nearly three years and countless could-have-beens, none closer than Sunday's loss less than two miles from the checkers, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will enter Saturday night's Texas race looking at a potential 100 straight winless races.
It's a big ugly number, but does it mean anything in and of itself? I mean, other than the fact that pretty much every major driver in the sport has won at least one race since then? (Shoot, even Joey Logano and David Reutimann.)
Long losing streaks aren't unusual. Kevin Harvick, the Junior-denier himself, went 115 races between winning the 2007 Daytona 500 and winning at Talladega last year. And if Matt Kenseth can't find victory lane soon, he'll hit 100 sometime during the Chase this year. But neither of those guys received anywhere near the scrutiny and scorn of Earnhardt.
It's not hard to see why. Earnhardt carries the immovable burden of his last name, a legacy that nobody could ever live up to. He's a good driver, a very good driver, but he's nowhere near his daddy. Then again, neither is anyone else driving today. Jimmie Johnson has the Cups, Kyle Busch the talent, Harvick the attitude, Tony Stewart the charisma, but nobody comes close to comprising the total package that was the Intimidator.
Thing is, Earnhardt Jr. is close. Very, very close, and not just because of this past weekend's near-win. He's reliably running in the top 15 now, a marked change from the last two seasons, where breaking into the teens was cause for celebration. Maybe it's the new shop alignment with the 48 team; maybe it's new crew chief Steve Letarte; maybe it's just the freedom that comes from knowing that if you're already losing, things really can't get much worse. Whatever, even Earnhardt's most disturbingly ardent detractors can't deny that Junior's on the right trajectory.
Moreover, he really seems to care about this racing deal. That was the knock on him for so many years, that he'd been pushed into this gig by virtue of genetics and he'd rather be doing anything but racin' cars. But to see him on Sunday, his voice breaking, barely able to vocalize his disappointment ... this is a guy who wants to win very, very badly.
"We will win our share of races," he said as Harvick celebrated just a few yards away. "I've got a long time to go left." For the first season since 2008, that time doesn't seem like a prison sentence.
And for the record, the schedule sets up very well for him over the next couple weeks. At Texas he's got one win and eight top-10s in 11 starts. At Talladega? Five wins and 11 top-10s in 22 starts. It's all out there waiting.