June 12, 2012
By Doug Demmons
Being a citizen of Junior Nation this year has to be like having permanent reservations at the Heartbreak Hotel.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been so close to that elusive victory, so close to breaking that four-year winless streak, that his fans can just taste it.
Sunday at Pocono may have been the closest yet. He finished eighth, but he was much closer to a win than the final results indicated.
As the laps wound down and Junior was out front, watching Matt Kenseth disappear in the rearview mirror, Junior Nation started to stir like it hasn’t in a long time. The excitement was palpable even on Twitter.
This was going to be it. Pocono was going to be the place. Surely.
Junior had a wicked fast car on Sunday. He stormed to the front and stayed there. It wasn’t because of some slick move by his crew chief. He was just plain fast.
Junior was so fast it was going to take something spectacular to keep him out of Victory Lane -- a meteor shower, a horrible turn of luck, some stupid mistake or just plain ole getting outsmarted.
For Junior Nation, holding its collective breath, it was almost too good to be true.
And, sure enough, it was.
Junior’s chance for victory ended as he came down pit road on a late caution with hardly anyone else except teammate Jeff Gordon to keep him company. The rest of the leaders chose to stay out and gamble on fuel.
Not Junior, who hates having to save fuel. He told crew chief Steve Letarte he wouldn’t forgive him if he stayed out and ran out of fuel. So down pit road he came for a fuel-only stop.
That meant restarting 16th with the laps dwindling down. It might have worked. And Junior, with the pedal to the floor, might have gotten past everyone in fuel-save mode. But then NASCAR waved off the restart and added more caution laps because of problems with Kasey Kahne’s crippled No. 5.
Junior fumed in his car. Everyone who stayed out must now be good to go to the end, he remarked sarcastically on the radio.
“Well, we just didn’t want to run out of gas,” he said after the race, explaining why he came in to pit. “I didn’t know the caution flags were going to be so long. And they were long enough to help them guys make it on fuel. We’re not taking those kinds of chances just yet.”
Other drivers were rolling the dice. Junior, who ran out at Charlotte last year to lose a sure win in the Coke 600, wasn’t about to do that.
“I don’t like running out of gas,” he said. “I ran out of gas here one year and that pisses me off so bad that it’s just hard to recover from it, mentally, in the next couple of weeks. There’s just no excuse in running out of gas. You put fuel in it and you go run.”
Junior had the fuel and he ran, but there weren’t enough laps left to catch the leaders. And that was that.
Another race, another heartbreak for Junior Nation.
Of course, the heartbreak is tempered by the fact that Junior is actually having a stellar season. He’s second in the standings and has 11 top 10 finishes in just 14 races. He’s the only Cup driver to have finished on the lead lap in every race.
Other drivers would kill their mothers for such numbers.
And while points certainly win championships, they don’t win hearts. Wins do that.
It doesn’t matter how many points Junior amasses between now and Homestead. Without a win this year even a championship would seem hollow.
But hope springs eternal and there is always next week, which just happens to be Michigan, the site of Junior’s last victory, way back before the stock market crashed and the economy tanked.
How ironic would that be?
Doug Demmons is a writer and editor for the Birmingham News ~ he writes daily and weekly auto racing columns ranging from NASCAR to open wheel to Formula One, local tracks and more... you can read Doug's columns online at ALABAMA MOTORSPORTS
Follow Doug on Twitter: @dougdemmons
The thoughts and ideas expressed by this writer or any other writer on Insider Racing News, are not necessarily the views of the staff and/or management of IRN.