Four years ago, Americans were preparing for what would become a historic presidential election and athletes were preparing for an Olympic Games in China. The Detroit Lions were a winless football franchise, and the New York Yankees still played in their original stadium. Conan O'Brien's show still aired at 12:30 a.m., and Joe the Plumber was more famous than Justin Bieber. Danica Patrick won an open-wheel race, and Dario Franchitti was slogging through a forgettable NASCAR campaign. Tony Stewart drove for Joe Gibbs Racing, and Gene Haas co-owned a two-car team that wallowed deep in the points.
Things were a little different back then; in politics, in popular culture, and on the playing fields. From a NASCAR perspective, the sport's most popular driver had recently allied with the sport's best team, and the result was a degree of potential that boggled the mind. And Dale Earnhardt Jr. did nothing to discourage that, getting off to a good start in his debut season with Hendrick Motorsports that included a victory at Michigan International Speedway which snapped a 76-race winless streak. Suddenly, anything was possible. The stars had aligned. The breakthrough was nigh.
Except ... it wasn't.
That was a wearying 76-race winless skid, and it wore on a driver who in the middle of it had to carry the additional burdens of a very public spat with his stepmother and a split from the race team his father created.
Now? It seems like so many specks of rain on the windshield in the slog through this current 143-race drought, a dry spell almost biblical in its proportions -- so long that it's difficult to really comprehend it. Friday was the four-year mark since Earnhardt's last victory, which came at Michigan on Father's Day, the exact same conditions that will be present in the Irish Hills on Sunday afternoon.
"It has to be terrible. I would think about retiring," a clearly joking Greg Biffle told reporters in Michigan this week. "I better quit teasing. Everyone is going to hate me."
Jimmie Johnson remembers getting grief for his recent drought, which maxed out at 16 races before he broke through earlier this season at Darlington. "I can only imagine four years," he said in Michigan. "It's been tough on him. I think we've all paid close attention to what's going on with the 88 and the speed in the car and how competitive he is. This year and even last year, we all know a win and then multiple wins are right around the corner."
Give the guy credit -- Earnhardt gets asked almost every week about when he's going to win again. He represents a massive fan base that pines desperately for that next victory, and he handles it all as well as can be imagined. His previous winless streak, despite being two years shorter, seemed much more difficult to bear because of all the personal baggage that was dragged along with it. Now it's simply about performance, and at Hendrick, there's no question the performance will ultimately be there. We saw glimpses of that last season, when Little E returned to the Chase after two long years wandering in the wilderness. And now it's at its full manifestation, with Earnhardt having his best season since his heyday in the No. 8 car, a serious threat to win every week.
Up until now, though, only a threat. No question he's writing the book on consistency, better on a race-to-race basis than just about anybody but Biffle (the former Sprint Cup points leader) and Matt Kenseth (the current one), on pace to exceed a career best in top-10 finishes. Earnhardt is thriving, renewed and competitive, whether he's in Victory Lane or not. But, at some point, he will need to win both for practical reasons -- he's going to be in a hole to start the Chase without a win or two to improve his seeding -- as well as to remove this yoke that's been around his neck for a full presidential election cycle. Who knows -- he gets one win, he could go on a run like his Hendrick team did after getting over the 200th victory hump.
But the dam has to be broken down first.
"I feel like we're getting really close," Earnhardt told reporters in Michigan. "We've been really competing well, and have been competitive every week and at every track. And that's feels really good to say. The team is excited. We ran great last week [at Pocono]. We had a strong car. So the team is really excited. We're just kind of going to each race track every weekend and [see] what kind of car we can put out on the starting grid on Sunday. I feel like if we keep going, we're going to win some races. We've just got to keep working."
Earnhardt's current run, a streak of nine top-10s in his last 10 races that has him up to second in points, both highlights and deemphasizes the skid all at once. Every week now he's running well enough to win, and each time that No. 88 car appears in the right position toward the end of a race, the question begins -- is this the week? Is this finally the week?
Biffle, who snapped a 49-race drought of his own earlier this season at Texas, said skids become more prominent in drivers' minds the closer they come to breaking them. "Right now, he is in position to win and running good enough to win," the Roush Fenway driver said, "So the emphasis is there."
At the same time, this doesn't feel anything like 2009 and 2010, when car owner Rick Hendrick was throwing everything he could at the No. 88 program trying to right it, and nothing worked. If you had to identify a turning point, it was when Steve Letarte came on as crew chief prior to the 2011 campaign, and instilled within his driver degrees of confidence and belief that seemed to be flagging. You almost have to draw a line there, and look at the two sides as very different chapters of the same book. The Earnhardt of now is nothing like the Earnhardt of then. The drought of now is nothing like the drought of then. That one was defined by frustration; this one is characterized by hope.
"When we weren't running well and we had to answer as to why we weren't winning -- we were miles from winning, you know?" Earnhardt said. "We were so far away from being able to compete, and win a race, and be competitive enough to win a race, that that was a tough question to answer. Now, it just feels like it's right around the corner. So, I'm getting excited. I'm getting more and more excited the more we run this year."
So, yes, it's been a very long time since NASCAR's most popular driver has pulled into Victory Lane. But when it happens the next time, it will have the full weight of validity behind it. Individual wins can be fleeting if they don't occur within the scope of a bigger picture, of trying to run for something greater. We witnessed that four years ago, with a triumph that's remembered only because of the dry spell that followed it. The next one will be a building block, one four years in the making, one achieved by a driver and a program that are probably better because they were broken down and built back up over such an extended span of time. And it may be the next step toward a much bigger victory indeed.
"I want to try to win a championship," Earnhardt said. "That's what you run the whole season for, and our team has really, really good speed now. We ran well last year in the Chase, but we weren't in the battle for the championship. We did well. We did better than I think a lot of people anticipated us doing in the Chase. And so we've put together a lot of great and consistent races, and we're second in points right now. And so if we can put together this type of performance in the Chase, I don't see why we can't consider ourselves with an opportunity to challenge for the championship. And we've got to go into that with great confidence."
Earnhardt? A championship? The possibilities are there, as plain as the number on the side of his Chevrolet. Some things, after all, are worth the wait.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.