CONCORD, N.C. — With the majority of teams based in North Carolina, drivers often consider the races at Charlotte Motor Speedway “home” races.
But Dale Earnhardt Jr. is one of the few drivers left in the sport who can truly call the 1.5-mile speedway his “home track.” Hailing from Kannapolis, North Carolina — which sits approximately 14 miles northeast of the track — Earnhardt recalls attending the Charlotte races early in his life.
“Some of the first memories of being at a 1.5-mile race track (are) here at Charlotte,” Earnhardt said Thursday in Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Media Center. “I used to go to the dirt tracks with Dad when I was very small, but the first memories of actually being at a Cup event were here. The Eurys and the Earnhardt family would park up on the hill of the road course, about the tallest peak of elevation there.”
The hill of the road course is where he used to race his plastic cars of Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough. The asphalt oval is where he used to watch his father Dale Earnhardt race — and where “The Intimidator” won five times in NASCAR’s premier series.
But Charlotte has eluded its hometown son for nearly 18 years, who has yet to earn a points-paying victory in 33 races.
Junior would love to change that during this weekend’s Coca-Cola 600, the race that he named as the one he’d most like to win before he hangs up his fire suit after the 2017 season.
“I thought, considering we’ve had some decent success in the sport, I would have guessed I’d have got a win here in a points race at some point, but it just hasn’t happened,” Earnhardt said. “We’ve had some close ones … but since the repave, for whatever reason it’s really been tough for me. We just really haven’t been able to hit on how to get around here. Either how to set the car up or what I’m looking for or what I need to be doing with the car driving it.”
His 18th-place result in last week’s exhibition Monster Energy Series All-Star Race at Charlotte didn’t bestow much confidence, and left Earnhardt disappointed. The No. 88 team needed to try something different if they didn’t want Sunday night’s 600-mile marathon race to feel even longer.
Enter Earnhardt’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, who certainly has a grasp on Charlotte. The all-time track winner with eight victories, Johnson has led nearly 2,000 laps in 31 races and is the most recent winner at the speedway (2016 Bank of America 500).
The fact that Johnson’s No. 48 team shares a race shop with Earnhardt’s No. 88 camp has been especially helpful this week.
“We totally eighty-sixed all that stuff we ran last week and we put in Jimmie’s set-up, we’re just like him,” Earnhardt said. “I was just asking Greg (Ives, crew chief), ‘How are we just like him if he ran a flat and we ran a 30 in practice?’ Greg and Chad (Knaus, No. 48 crew chief) got real close this week and me and Jimmie have been in communication and Jimmie has come by the car a couple of times in practice already looking at notes and printing out our driver traces and trying to figure out whatever we can do to help me.
“ … He comes over with these print outs and says this is what I’m doing with the gas and this is what you are doing and this is where the time is getting lost and maybe try this and that and the other, he is a super teammate. I’m lucky to be able to work in the same shop with him. He has certainly been an influence on my success and my enjoyment in the sport.”
Earnhardt ran 22nd in opening practice, while Johnson ran second. But Earnhardt expected that, given his team’s struggles last week and the VHT resin laid on the track prior to this weekend.
“If we get it right, we can get in the top 15. That’s a start. That ain’t good enough, still,” Earnhardt said. “But that’s progress compared to last week. And I’m really looking forward to getting in race trim. We’ve got some practice time. We really ran short last week on practice time, so I’m anxious to get in there and practice and see what we can do.
“We’ve got a completely different set-up. So, hopefully it doesn’t go like it did last week.
“It shouldn’t. And let’s hope it doesn’t.”