Dale Earnhardt Jr. was coasting under caution, about to start the third segment of the Sprint All-Star Race, but he couldn't prevent his mind from drifting to another event.
"Don't let me forget to tell you," he radioed to crew chief Steve Letarte, "how much I'm looking forward to the 600."
That would be the Coca-Cola 600, next weekend's marathon at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and a year ago perhaps the best chance Earnhardt had to snap a winless streak at NASCAR's highest level that now stretches back 140 points-paying events. Last season he led off the final corner, trying to stretch a fuel run to the end, but ran dry through the last few turns and suffered perhaps the most heartbreaking defeat of this four-year dry spell. But after Saturday night's $1 million-to-win exhibition, one thing became as clear as the fireworks bursting in the sky above this 1.5-mile facility.
Next week, Earnhardt is the favorite to win.
Jimmie Johnson may have claimed his third all-star victory Saturday, but no driver or vehicle was as impressive as Earnhardt in that No. 88, which won a preliminary event just to get into the big show and then charged to the front of a star-studded field again and again and again. Earnhardt was a sitting duck at the end, winning a segment but winning the wrong one, and starting the final 10-lap dash with more miles on his tires than his chief competitors. He wasn't helped when Matt Kenseth's car was slow in front of him on the last restart, giving NASCAR's most popular driver almost no chance to catch the drivers starting in front of him with so few laps remaining.
"We just didn't have enough laps to mount any kind of a challenge," said Earnhardt, who came in fifth. "They were gone after about two or three laps."
No matter -- in the All-Star Race, when it's all about winning and the big bag of cash at the end, almost anything short of a victory is a disappointment. Unless it's placed in the context of next Sunday, and one of the most prestigious events in NASCAR, when the knowledge attained from this exhibition will be put to use. And you look at that No. 88 car, which ran away and hid in a qualifying race held in waning daylight and then contended for the victory in a main event held at night, and it's hard to not believe it's capable of being equally as potent under what should be similar conditions next week.
"I think if we can repeat that sort of speed, we'll have a great 600," Letarte said. "The thing I liked about it the most is, we really didn't adjust it all night. Our race started around 7 and with when things finished -- you're looking at not quite early enough for the start of the 600, but you get in the bulk, the last two-thirds of the 600. So hopefully that will give us a good benchmark to get going."
The signs were evident from the beginning of the Sprint Showdown, a preliminary event for drivers not otherwise qualified for the All-Star Race, where Earnhardt led all 40 laps and was never really challenged. This time he had raced his way into the big show, just as he had hoped to, rather than rely on the near-certainty of being voted in by the fans, "You spanked 'em hard tonight," car owner Rick Hendrick said over the radio after Earnhardt won the qualifier. "Yeah," the driver answered. "Pretty good car."
"Pretty good?" Hendrick responded. "How about real good?"
It was. Starting near the rear of the field for the All-Star Race, Earnhardt needed a little pit strategy to gain track position. But unlike the winners of the first three segments, he didn't have the luxury of coasting around at the tail end of the lead lap, buying time until the pit stop before the final 10-lap dash -- a stop for which the four segment winners would line up in the top four spots. Earnhardt won the fourth segment, but it concluded just after a caution period that allowed Johnson to take fresh tires, since as the first segment winner his place at the front of the field was guaranteed.
Kenseth's slow restart, which came right in front a No. 88 car lined up in fourth place, didn't help. In truth, Earnhardt probably wouldn't have been able to catch the leaders anyway, especially given that Johnson used his fresher rubber to scoot away from the field and win with relative ease. But coming out of a qualifying race, starting from near the rear of the field, racing from the back to the front over and over to try and gain track position -- through all of it, the Chevy with the special Dale Jr. Foundation paint scheme never wavered. And next week there are no segments, no automatic passes to the front of the field, no coasting around in the back. Next week, it's 600 arduous miles of going fast and turning left.
"I think we showed what we're capable of doing here next weekend," Earnhardt said. "We're probably going to bring the same car. We've got a couple of ideas on how to make the car even faster, especially for qualifying, that I hope will work out. But I'm real pleased with our effort."
Understandably so. Earnhardt's 2000 victory in NASCAR's all-star event stands among the most notable of his career, capped by a celebration that included a now-famous embrace by his father. But last year, his No. 88 team didn't put much of an emphasis on the race. It is an exhibition, after all, despite all the fireworks the blown engines and big money doled out at the end. Letarte, then in his first season in the sport's highest-profile crew chief position, wanted to focus on righting a foundering program and getting off to the kind of start that would land them in the Chase. He did all that, though the price was an afterthought of an all-star event in which the sport's biggest star finished 14th.
At the time, Earnhardt wasn't aware of it -- Letarte only told him sometime in the past year, he said. But given the hole his No. 88 program had fallen into, and the expectations that always surround him, he understood the approach.
"We didn't bring our best bullet to the fight," Earnhardt said after winning the Showdown. "He told me this year they were going to put a little more emphasis on this event. I think last year ... in defense of Steve and his decision, we were a young team. This was early for us in our relationship. He was concentrating really more on the 600, trying to make the Chase. We had a lot of pressure on us to do well. We were still sort of coming out of the box. This was pretty early in the season last year. In defense of his decision there, I don't have a problem with it at this point. Obviously now ... it's easy to look back and say it's not a big deal. But it was a challenging time for us, and our priorities were quite a bit different then."
Now, the priority is clear: win the Coca-Cola 600, end the streak, claim the one that got away in the final laps last season. The memory of it, of the No. 88 car coming off Turn 4 clear of the field and then slowing agonizingly to a crawl, still stings.
"I try not to think about it. That one hurts," Letarte said. "Last year we had an OK car, we worked a really good strategy, and we ran out of gas trying to win one on fuel. I think we have more speed this year, which will hopefully open up more strategies. But [tonight] was a really fun night. Looking forward to next week without a doubt."
Saturday night, Letarte said he still hadn't decided which car to use in next weekend's event. His team makes a lot of good cars, he said, as Earnhardt's third-place position in Sprint Cup points will attest. But in the immediate aftermath of the Sprint All-Star Race, the crew chief may have revealed a clue. Feel free to give Hendrick Motorsports teammate Johnson a congratulatory tap, he told his driver. Just be careful.
"Don't dent it, though," Letarte radioed. "We might bring it back."
With good reason. Because as late Saturday night turned to early Sunday morning, that battle-tested No. 88 was the favorite to win the Coca-Cola 600.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
Watch Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s All-Star weekend highlights below:
- Steve Letarte