By Jerry Bonkowski
The Sports Xchange
DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Like a taxi meter that doesn't stop, Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s winless streak keeps clicking along.
Earnhardt came into Saturday's Bojangles Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway not having visited victory lane in a regulation Sprint Cup race in 139 starts. He's closing in on the four-year anniversary of his last Cup win: June 15, 2008 in a rain-shortened event at Michigan.
The numbers are even worse if you go back prior to the Michigan triumph: Earnhardt has won just one race since his last full-race (not shortened by weather) win at Richmond International Raceway on May 6, 2006.
Add it up and Earnhardt, who qualified 24th at Darlington, has won just once in his last 215 starts -- a period of more than six years.
On the flip side of his lengthy losing streak, Earnhardt has been among the most consistent drivers on the Cup circuit this season. In 10 starts thus far in 2012, he has four top 5s, four other top 10s, a 14th-place finish and his season low of 15th.
In addition, he has remained in the top 5 of the Sprint Cup overall points standings after each of the 10 races.
If Earnhardt -- or Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne or Jeff Gordon, all who have also failed to reach victory lane thus far this season -- won Saturday, it would also give team owner Rick Hendrick his 200th career Sprint Cup win.
Danica Patrick makes her second career Sprint Cup start in Saturday's Bojangles Southern 500.
Coincidentally, Patrick qualified 38th for Saturday's race, the same position she finished in her Cup debut in the season-opening Daytona 500.
"It shows me what these Cup guys can do when it comes time to put it on the board," Patrick said of the difficulty of qualifying well at Darlington. "I know the starting spot won't be great, but it was a step forward for me and those are the things I'm looking for along the way."
With its 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval, Darlington is one of the most unique and difficult tracks on the circuit. Each of its four turns is different and a driver can expect to trade paint with both other drivers and Darlington's notorious hard walls at more than one point during the event.
Patrick was prepared for that going in.
"I'm told it's not going to be so much about the track and getting comfortable and getting up to speed or feeling good, that it's going to be more about learning how to pass there and how that works because it's one lane and one groove," Patrick said. "Getting used to that is going to be the hardest thing. Other than that, it's a new track for me, so feeling out the rhythm of the race is going to be another challenge."
Track officials have heavily promoted Saturday's Bojangles 500 as Round 2 of Kevin Harvick vs. Kyle Busch.
After contact between the pair in last year's event at Darlington, Harvick climbed from his car and approached Busch on pit road, who was still behind the wheel. Harvick took a swing at Busch that missed, but rather than try to get a lick in of his own, Busch slammed into the rear of Harvick's parked car and pushed it into the retaining wall so he could drive away.
The incident prompted NASCAR to put both drivers on probation.
Track president Chris Browning has been milking the incident in promotional ads and TV spots for the last few months. There's even a huge billboard touting the "rematch" between the two in front of the racetrack.
From his perspective, Busch appeared disinterested to play off the promotion and buildup for a second go-round with Harvick.
"I don't care, they can do whatever they want, it's their jurisdiction," Busch said. "They can advertise how they want to, it's just frustrating for the rest of us. Our sponsors don't want to see that; they certainly don't (have) a smile on their face when they see that stuff. I tend to be able to let things go and forget about things while others tend to keep dwelling and keep bringing them back up."
Harvick, who is billed as "The Hitman" in one of the promotional billboards around the racetrack, is also playing down any semblance of a rematch.
"This isn't boxing (laughs), this is racing," he said. "Sometimes you get frustrated and you have things happen and you have those dustups.
"Things are what they are, we have tried to move past them and concentrate on what we have to concentrate on. The racetrack has to do what they have to do to sell tickets. It's not like it didn't happen. You can't really hide from that. It's OK."
As for his thoughts on Busch, Harvick deadpanned, "I don't talk about Kyle or to Kyle."