INDIANAPOLIS -- He's won at some of the sport's largest and most popular venues, including Daytona, Talladega and Texas.
Yet Indianapolis Motor Speedway has been a conundrum throughout Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s career, with just two top-10 finishes in 12 starts.
But given the outstanding and consistent season he's had thus far in 2012—with one win, eight top-5s and 10 top-10 finishes in his first 19 races—Earnhardt could wind up finally breaking his run of bad luck at the fabled 2.5-mile oval in Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Brickyard 400.
"We’re coming here with pretty high expectations, coming off what’s been one of my best years maybe in my career," Earnhardt said. "We like coming here. We like the history of the race track; the history here is incredible all the way to when it was shut down through the war. How they had to renovate the place and bring it back. Just how it was able to survive a lot of things like that. Here we are racing on it today. It is just incredible."
Earnhardt isn't the only driver who has been confounded by IMS. Passing opportunities there with a stock car are very limited. Try to go three-wide into a corner and it's pretty much a foregone conclusion that you'll either have to lift off your gas pedal or risk being part of a wreck.
"(IMS) is a challenging place," Earnhardt continued. "One groove and you fight getting aero-tight behind people. You know when you show up for practice what you need out of your car. We’ve been working on our car today and hoping that we can get it to doing the things that I want it to do and it needs to do.
"The cars aren’t a real dream to drive, but I don’t know that even when they are fast they drive very well. We liked the speed the car has."
Earnhardt starts Sunday's race from the 20th position, and while he's far from the kind of make-or-break Chase situation facing so many drivers from seventh to 20th in the Sprint Cup standings, Earnhardt would love to add another win to his triumph at Michigan back in June, which snapped a 143-race winless streak.
Junior is also tempted by the potential of moving up in the standings by the time the Chase for the Sprint Cup order is finalized. This kind of momentum could potentially propel him into the lead in the Cup points.
"I think I could come in here and probably have my best finish here in quite a while," Earnhardt conceded. "I think the reason I struggle here is because it is one groove, and following people around the race track and not being able to get to their bumper because of the aero push. I don’t have a lot of patience for that.
"I like race tracks where I can change my line. You don’t have but really one choice to run through the corner here. You don’t have a top groove. You can’t really take a bigger arc in the corner or change how you exit. You kind of have just one choice. Everybody has that same limitation, and you sort of snake around the race track without with the challenge of the aero push and everything. It is really difficult to get two people…when you are talking about running in the top-five, everybody is really running the same times."
But surprisingly, the driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet doesn't feel quite as badly as you would think for someone who has posted the kind of mediocre results he has at IMS.
"I don’t really feel as frustrated about my performance here as one might think," Earnhardt said. "I remember some cars that I had here were pretty good. I thought we had a good car here last year, and we got a bunch of grass on the grill and had to come in and lost a lot of track positions. We just fought all day long to get that back.
"And then Juan [Pablo Montoya] hit the fence in front of us and decided to quit the race and ran into the side of my car going on to pit lane. It was a little bit of a rough day. But, I thought we had good speed."
"I look at the positives," he continued. "I don’t come here thinking ‘I’ve never been able to get my finger on this place.' I feel like I know how to get around here. I’m just looking for the right balance in the car and just putting together a good race. That’s something we’ve been able to do this year.
"Something the team’s improved on is completing races and putting together full events. Not having a good first half and then disappearing. We’ve been able to finish races and do well even when we haven’t been the best car. I think we can continue that here. This track lends itself to Pocono where I felt like we were really strong. From what I saw today, I thought the car had good speed, and I thought we were a top-five, top-10 car, easy."
The main thing for Earnhardt to finally achieve success at Indy is to keep his cool and be patient, letting opportunities come to him rather than him trying to create action of his own.
"I’m just not a patient driver, so I get a little frustrated and end up over-driving my car, and I just can’t," Earnhardt acknowledged. "When I go to race tracks where I get stuck behind somebody because it’s tight, I can move around and do things that get creative and things that might help me. But, in my mind, I feel like I’ve got more freedom. That is not a knock on the track. I think it’s just that some drivers are really, really smooth. Really patient. I’m a bit more brash in how I drive the car."
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.
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