Earnhardt back in Michigan, hoping for elusive victory
Dale Earnhardt Jr. tries not to worry about his winless stretch, which reached three years this week. But now that he's back in Michigan, the site of his last victory, there's no avoiding the questions.
"Would like to win a race," Earnhardt said. "We're trying to, but we don't want to get too careless about it and start taking too many chances that are foolish."
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The date was June 15, 2008. Earnhardt's fuel-mileage victory at Michigan International Speedway snapped a 76-race winless string shortly after he teamed up with Hendrick Motorsports. Since then, he's raced 107 times on the Sprint Cup circuit without finishing first.
Despite all that, NASCAR's most popular driver is a lot more upbeat these days. Although he has yet to win, he has eight top-10 finishes in 14 races this season, equaling his total for all of 2010.
He's third in the points standings entering Sunday's race.
"I think I'm having one of the best years I've ever had," he said.
The talk of his drought will persist until Earnhardt wins a race, but at least he's in contention now on a regular basis. Kevin Harvick passed him with four laps remaining to win at Martinsville Speedway in April. Earnhardt led on the final lap last month at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but settled for seventh after his gas tank ran dry. He finished second in Kansas and sixth at Pocono last weekend.
Sure, it's frustrating for his many fans, but it beats being irrelevant. "I felt like last year and the year before that, I wasn't competitive enough to even worry about it," Earnhardt said. "Now this year, we're running good, and I can think about wins, I can think about missed opportunities that we've had a little bit more. But they don't bother me."
And even if Earnhardt does win soon, he won't be satisfied.
"One race doesn't make a season. One win really doesn't make a season," he said. "We would definitely like to win several races, and I would definitely feel like we're where we need to be, potential-wise. We're not now. We're getting there. We're doing good, but we still know we can do better."
Probation ends for Kyle Busch, Harvick
Probation is over for Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick, but the drivers aren't ready to shake hands and make up. Asked how much the end of the penalty would change his driving, Busch said "zero."
"It didn't matter being on it or being off it," he said Friday before practice for Sunday's race at Michigan International Speedway. "I try to race the best I can each and every week, as hard as I can and as clean as I can."
The two drivers, fined and disciplined for a run-in after the May 7 race at Darlington, were again told to cool it last week at Pocono. Harvick said that he wanted Busch to know he had one coming.
"Fine with me," Busch said. "It's not my problem. I race my racecar, he drives his. You saw how I raced."
The two have not spoken to each other since NASCAR sat them down before the May 15 race at Dover. Their trailers were parked next to each other Friday morning because placement is determined by Sprint Cup points standings.
Harvick seemed to back off his threat when he spoke to reporters. "A lot of these things, you go out on the racetrack and things happen and you do what you think is right at the right time," he said.
Gibbs teams had unauthorized oil pans
NASCAR officials ordered three Joe Gibbs Racing teams to change oil pans before Friday's practice at Michigan International Speedway. NASCAR said oil pans from cars driven by Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano were not submitted for approval before opening-day inspection. Their practice times were allowed only after the pans were removed.
NASCAR said it will discuss early next week if there will be additional penalties. Hamlin is 12th in the Sprint Cup points standings entering Sunday's race and can ill afford a severe sanction.
"We're going to need every point we can get at this stage right now," Hamlin said. "We still have so much time left. We can win races, we can still get into the top five in points, feasibly."
Uncle Mo making his way back to track
It's time for Uncle Mo to be a racehorse again. Owner Mike Repole said Friday that the 2010 2-year-old champion is scheduled to walk with a rider on his back Saturday and Sunday at WinStar Farm in Versailles.
The plan is to begin jogging Monday "for 10 to 14 days," followed by galloping for approximately the same period, although there is "no specific timetable." Uncle Mo also will exercise on his own in a 1½ -acre paddock. If all goes well, the colt will return to trainer Todd Pletcher's barn in about a month.
Repole told Newsday that Uncle Mo is "going in the right direction" as he copes with cholangiohepatitis, a rare liver ailment diagnosed June 3. Repole said the horse has gained 100 pounds since arriving at WinStar May 9, three days after being scratched from the Kentucky Derby.
"He hasn't had a saddle or a rider on him in six weeks," Repole said. "Hopefully, if we can get him back, he can prove he's the best 3-year-old in the country in the second half of the season. But if he takes a step backward or the stress of racing is too much for him, he'll be retired. It's my responsibility to do the right thing."
■ It was father over son in the Coronation Stakes at Royal Ascot in England. Immortal Verse, trained by Robert Collet, made a last-to-first run on Friday and won the 1-mile race for fillies by 21/4 lengths over Nova Hawk, trained by Collet's son Rodolphe. American-based More Than Real, owned by celebrity chef Bobby Flay and trained by Todd Pletcher, finished 11th in the 12-horse field in her 3-year-old debut. The filly won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies last November.
Isner, Mahut get Wimbledon rematch
The longest-match rematch is coming to Wimbledon: John Isner and Nicolas Mahut will play each other in the first round. Last year, the pair played the longest match in tennis history, with Isner winning 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (3), 70-68 in a first-round match at the All England Club that lasted 11 hours, 5 minutes stretched over three days. "It's going to be pretty nuts," Isner said. "I couldn't believe it. I joked with him earlier in the week, last week, and said, 'Watch us play each other.' And he said, 'No, there's no way.'"
The two players have become good friends since their historic encounter a year ago. They were to practice together Saturday but canceled those plans once they learned the rematch was on.
"We might do dinner (afterward)," Isner said. "We're really good friends now, but obviously we both want to win. But we're going to enjoy it and laugh at it at the same time."
■ Ricky Rubio will finally join the Minnesota Timberwolves. The 20-year-old Spanish guard ended two years of speculation when he said, "I have finally decided to start the journey" to the NBA. The Timberwolves selected Rubio with the No. 5 pick in the 2009 draft, but his $6 million buyout clause made him stay in Spain until the price dropped to a more manageable $1.4 million.
■ Kentucky softball assistant coach and former All-American Molly Johnson was selected to the United States' national team for the third straight summer season. The squad will play a two-game exhibition series in Plant City, Fla., on Saturday, June 25.
■ Former University of Louisville star Adam Duvall, a San Francisco Giants prospect, was 4-for-6 with three RBI in Class A Augusta's 15-5 win against Asheville. Duvall has 17 home runs and 52 RBI this season. ... Phil Wunderlich, another former Cardinal, was 2-for-4 with a double, a home run and five RBI in Class A Bowling Green's 7-2 win at South Bend. It was the 10th home run and 52nd RBI for the Tampa Bay Rays prospect.
The last word
NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson said fans won't be the only ones watching for continued fireworks between Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick:
"I have no idea what's going to happen but I'm sure we'll all be very entertained."