Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been around too long to let a little winless streak get him flustered.
While NASCAR’s Sprint Cup drivers watched and waited out a weather delay before qualifying Friday at Pocono Raceway, Earnhardt took questions about whether he was getting antsy as he enters the season’s second half without a victory.
NASCAR’s most popular driver’s response: Not so much.
“No, I’m not feeling any anxiety. At 41 years old you kind of get over that stuff. I’m not going to worry about it,” Earnhardt said. “I spent the first 18 years worrying myself to death.”
Earnhardt has three second-place finishes through the first 13 races, but lacks the victory that would all but clinch his spot in the Chase. Earnhardt and his No. 88 Chevrolet team are currently 13th in the Cup standings, with the top 16 qualifying for the Chase.
“I think we’re a good enough team to make it whether we get a win or not,” Earnhardt said. “That’s not a guarantee, I just feel confident that we’ll get in.”
Earnhardt’s 14-race drought, which dates to the Phoenix race in November, is relatively modest as far as winless streaks go. Earlier in his career Earnhardt endured skids of 76 and 143 skids that he snapped with wins at Michigan, site of next week’s Sprint Cup stop.
But Earnhardt has had success at Pocono as well, sweeping the two races here in 2014.
Earnhardt will start Sunday’s Axalta 400 in the fourth row (alongside Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson) in the eighth position after a qualifying speed of 179.6 mph.
Despite an abbreviated practice session because of rain in northeast Pennsylvania, Earnhardt advanced to the final round of qualifying Friday for the first time this season.
“We didn’t get a full practice in. But always better when you qualify better on Friday,” said Greg Ives, Earnhardt’s crew chief. “We’ve seemed to struggle on Friday and that just kind of sets the tone for the weekend and it kind of frustrates you a little bit. So really nice to be able to qualify in the top 10, top 12.”
Earnhardt is ready to turn the page on May, a month that saw him drop six spots in the Chase standings. Earnhardt crashed at Talladega and Dover, and posted pedestrian finishes at Kansas (15th) and Charlotte (14th).
“I feel like the summer is going to be a great opportunity for us to start to get some direction and regain some of our performance and maybe it starts this weekend,” Earnhardt said. “This is a track where I really enjoy racing at and have had some good success here of late. It’s seems to be a track where we’ve been pretty consistent each time we show up.”
Earnhardt has led only 49 laps this season (out of 4,102 total laps) and hasn’t run up front since Phoenix in March.
Earnhardt won’t find much sympathy around the other garages. When someone mentioned to Ryan Newman that Earnhardt is looking for his first win, Newman laughed and said: “So are we.
“They’ve got a bunch of second-place finishes,” Newman added. “They’ve been closer than we have.”
Earnhardt couldn’t really put his finger on what the problem has been. And even if he could, he said he wouldn’t identify the issue publicly.
“I’ve been racing in this series a long time and I’ve been asked that question dozens and dozens of times, like where do you need to improve? No matter what team I was racing for, no matter what year is was,” Earnhardt said.
“Even if you knew you wouldn’t tell. I mean you can’t say, ‘Them guys in the body shop, they need to get going.’ You’re not going to throw anybody under the bus. The majority of the time you don’t know.”
Earnhardt says he’s happy with his relationship with Ives, who took over as crew chief last year after Steve Letarte left to join NBC as a broadcaster.
That said, Earnhardt conceded Friday he could be in better communication with Ives when setting up the car.
“I think that I could call Greg, reach out to Greg, be more available and more conversational with him about what we are doing, preparing specifically with the set-up and understanding,” Earnhardt said. “We ran some stuff in our set-up for the All-Star race and for the (Coca-Cola) 600 that we had never ran before.”
Like Earnhardt, Ives is looking forward to moving on to June, even if Friday’s weather felt more like early spring.
“It definitely was a rough month. You’re going to go through those. Him and I haven’t had a lot of those months in the times that we’re together,” Ives said. “The month of May has been hard on us for some reason. I don’t understand why.
“But you can look at it two ways. You can look at adversity and run away from it or you can attack it.”