DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – A million bucks. That's how much Dale Earnhardt Jr. says he cost his team last year by not winning a race.
One million dollars, 'a lot of coin, even for someone in Junior's tax bracket.
The earnings loss stems from Earnhardt not being a part of NASCAR's "Winner's Circle" program, one of a handful of contingency plans that doles out cash to eligible drivers after every race. To be eligible for the Winner's Circle program, you have to have won a race, something Junior hasn't done since June 2008.
While much has been made of Earnhardt's 129-race winless streak, it apparently goes even deeper than the personal disappointment. According to NASCAR, the most a driver can earn in a season through the program is around $350,000. So considering Junior hasn't been eligible since 2009, that's $700,000, not a million, but still quite significant.
"[My team] could use that money," he said Wednesday at Daytona International Speedway. "There's just so many benefits to getting into the winner's circle. It will help our team. It will validate what me and [crew chief] Steve [Letarte] have been trying to do the last couple of years."
And a win in Sunday's Daytona 500?
"It would be spectacular for me personally to win it. But it would do so many other things that I can't even list right now – for the team, the company."
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When he arrived in Daytona Beach last week, Junior was anything but optimistic about his chances.
"This is probably the worst odds for me all year because of the way the racing is here," he said. Last year's emergence of the two-car-draft phenomenon at DIS stripped away whatever advantage – perceived or otherwise – Junior had. He could still read a 43-car draft better than anyone, but without a 43-car draft, he became just another driver riding around the 2.5-mile oval.
His tune changed after Saturday night's Bud Shootout, which, as a result of several mechanical changes mandated by NASCAR, saw the return of pack racing.
"I felt like I had control of my race and had potential to win the race if I made all the right moves," he said. "That is all I can ask for."
At Daytona, where winning is still very much a crapshoot, a chance might be all any driver can realistically expect. Still, having a shot at winning isn't winning, and just being in contention certainly won't satisfy the long-suffering folks who populate Junior Nation, let alone qualify Earnhardt for NASCAR's Winner's Circle program.
To say Junior winning, even once, would benefit NASCAR and everything involved with it – TV ratings, ticket sales, Internet clicks, etc. – would be to beat a dead horse that's been beaten and dead for a few years. Somewhat lost in everyone else's suffering through Junior's drought is how Junior himself has suffered.
A championship contender way back in 2004, his confidence has been beaten into a pulp since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2008. As Jimmie Johnson has collected championships and Jeff Gordon has won races and both are earning that million-dollar Winner's Circle bonus for team owner Rick Hendrick, there's Junior with nothing to hang his own hat on other than his popularity.
Amazingly, that popularity hasn't waned much, which is a credit to him. But it remains a small consolation when the business at hand is winning races, something he hasn't done in more than 1,300 days and counting.
"I just want to win – anywhere," he said Wednesday. "I just want to go ahead and get that done so I can think about the next one and get this streak over with."
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