Eleven years ago, Dale Earnhardt Jr. headed to the Texas Motor Speedway as a fresh-faced rookie sporting platinum blond hair. He left as a NASCAR Cup Series winner, taking the DirecTV 500 for the first of his 18-career wins.
This weekend, he returns to Texas for the Samsung Mobile 500 (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. on FOX) as a chiseled 36-year-old veteran sporting a thick red beard. He hopes to leave with his first win in 99 races, dating back to June of 2008, his first year piloting the No. 88 car for Rick Hendrick.
After that victory, in the 15th race of the season at the Michigan International Speedway, Earnhardt sat third in the standings. He had recorded 11 top-ten finishes, with seven top-fives, and had threatened to to win several more times before breaking through on a fuel-mileage gamble by crew chief and cousin Tony Eury Jr. It seemed that, after breaking winless streak of more than two years, that Earnhardt was on the verge of duplicating his career year of 2004, when he won six times and recorded 21 top-ten finishes but lost the championship after two late-season accidents. He'd now won just three times since the end of that 2004 season, but it seemed almost a certainty that he would eclipse that number in 2008 alone.
Instead, he only recorded five more top-ten finishes and ended the year 12th in the standings. Over the next two seasons he rarely challenged for top-fives, much less wins and was well outside of the Chase playoff both years. Worst of all, he has still only won three times since 2004, a stretch of 222 races, after recording 15 wins in his first 183 starts.
Now, however, for the first time since the sudden downturn in Earnhardt's performance in the middle of that first summer with Hendrick Motorosports, a return to victory lane seems almost imminent. He came within four laps of winning last Sunday's event at Martinsville, and he has three other top-tens in the first six races of 2011.
To an outside observer, there seems to be a confidence in Earnhardt that hasn't been there in years, something that no doubt has played a key role in his turnaround. Likely, a good bit of that is owed to the fact that his cars are performing at their best at the end of races, rather than starting fast and fading just as quickly as they had in the last two-and-a-half seasons.
Much of the credit is due to his new crew chief, Steve LeTarte, the likable New England native who himself is looking for a bit of redemption after being unfairly scapegoated during Jeff Gordon's dry spell. A plenty capable crew chief, LeTarte is also the calming influence and cheerleader that Earnhardt seemed to lack in recent years, with all due respect to previous crew chiefs Eury and Lance McGrew.
As the site of his first win, Texas would be the perfect place for Earnhardt to come full circle and return to victory lane. It is also where LeTarte last won, with Gordon in April 2009.