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Race Coverage
Second Place
Matt Crossman, Sportingnews.com

Fuel for thought: The Earnhardt of Old is on the Way Back

            CONCORD, N.C – The cars were wrecking behind him in Sunday night’s Coca-Cola 600, and all Dale Earnhardt Jr. had in front of him was a clean race track and less than three miles to go. As NASCAR officials lost the caution flag, the crowd lost its mind. He couldn’t hear that, of course, but he knows. He knows what a Dale Jr. win would mean for the sport. He knows the only person who would be happier than the people in the stands if he had won is the one he looked at when he shaved off that scraggly beard last week.
            As he barreled through the first mile and a half and over the start-finish line, under the man waving the white flag, Earnhardt kept the gas pedal on the floor. His mind held two opposing thoughts, one about winning, one about losing.
            “Going through (Turns) 1 and 2, I feel like I’m going to win this race,” he said in the garage, his face misted over with sweat. “It’s a real good feeling.”
            But he knew. Just like he knew a win would be big, he knew one was not coming. He knew he did not have enough gas. “I had already had my mind geared in case that happened,” he said.
            That makes him sound like a defeatist, but that’s not how he meant it. He meant it like a realist, like he knew the numbers, and the numbers said he would run out of gas on the backstretch, and that is exactly what happened.           And he wasn’t angry or disappointed. He was thrilled. So was the crowd. When an interview with him went live on the massive video screen at Charlotte Motor Speedway, fans erupted.
            The reason he – and they – were so happy even though he ran out of gas while leading on the last lap of the Coca-Cola 600 is that he was leading on the last lap of the Coca-Cola 600. He finished seventh, not that that mattered to him. The look in his eyes, his body language, his mood – he made running out of gas when he was leading on the last lap seem like the coolest thing in the world.
            This is what Dale Jr. acted like before he entered the wilderness years of his career. He acted like he believes that racing for the win is fun in and of itself, separate from the result. And there he was, racing for the win. Whether he got it was beside the point.
            “Think about it, man. Winning the 600!” he said, with a smile unseen from him since who knows when. More of his teeth were seen this night then the rest of the season combined. “That would be awesome.”
            That’s true for everyone, and it’s more true for him. The Coca-Cola 600 is one of NASCAR’s marquee races. More than most races, it is almost always won by superstars. Dating to the start of NASCAR’s modern era (1972), only twice have drivers who amassed fewer than 11 career wins took the checkered flag in Coca-Cola 600s that went the distance. There is one simple reason for that: The race takes forever, and bad drivers and poorly made cars don’t last long enough.
            The Coca-Cola 600 is challenging because it’s a marathon and a sprint. The race is as hard on drivers as it is on cars. It requires an engine that is stout and will last and a mind that is sharp and will stay that way for 400 laps and 1,600 left turns. The last 100 miles seem like far longer than that. A driver has to resist the urge to drive all-out on every lap while at the same time remembering this is indeed a race and lollygagging won’t cut it, either. That’s a lot harder than it sounds.
            Earnhardt has often been criticized for losing focus at the end of races – and his finishes reflect that. NASCAR keeps track of the positions a driver gains and loses in the final 10 percent of races. Last year, Earnhardt ranked 70th of 75 drivers. This year, he is ninth.
            No, he’s not back. He has to win, a couple of times, before he or anyone else can say that. But he’s a lot closer than he was. And on this night, he looked the part, in the car and out, more than he has in years.