Earnhardt happy to be back at Michigan

BROOKLYN, Mich. (AP) — A year ago, Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally snapped his long losing streak. He left Michigan International Speedway with hopes of more victories to come — maybe even a Sprint Cup championship.

He hasn’t won since.

“We want to win more races. We want to win numerous races and multiple races in a season,” Earnhardt said. “We want that to be the norm. We want that to be what is expected. When we first started working together we were trying to figure out how to get a 15th-place combination into the top 10 and we were happy when we did.

“Now when we run in the top 10 it’s just another weekend — and what do we have to do to win?”

Whenever NASCAR’s top series comes to Michigan, Earnhardt is at the center of attention. He won at MIS last June after 143 races without a victory. His most recent win before that was also at Michigan in 2008, so the Sprint Cup’s twice-yearly visits to the Irish Hills always seem to present an opportunity for Earnhardt and his No. 88 Chevrolet.

Earnhardt’s victory last year wasn’t a shock. He’d been running well for a while, working his way back among NASCAR’s elite drivers, so after a convincing performance at MIS, stock-car racing’s most popular driver could credibly eye a run at a series championship.

But concussion problems derailed his chances in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and although he began 2013 with five straight top-10 finishes and briefly led the points standings, he’s slipped to fourth since then.

Earnhardt took a step in the right direction with a third-place showing at Pocono last weekend, but the pressure is mounting for him to take advantage of a return to Michigan.

“It’s just a simple race track that has not got a lot of challenges. It’s very easily laid out and understandable for a driver. It really comes down to just getting your car to work,” Earnhardt said. “There are no bumps or bad transitions, there is nothing really that you are out there fighting or worried about or dreading. It’s just a simple race track and very wide.”

Jimmie Johnson has never won a Cup race at MIS, but he enters today’s 400-mile race leading the standings by 51 points over Carl Edwards. Johnson has three victories already this year, and another spot in the Chase looks like a formality.

“A lot can still go wrong if you hit a stretch of bad races. I feel like our wins will lock us in the Chase, but my mind is still on running well and getting ready for the Chase,” Johnson said. “I really am shocked that I’m so far out ahead of everybody.”

Edwards won the pole for today’s race. Earnhardt qualified 12th, and defending Cup champion Brad Keselowski was 16th, one spot ahead of Johnson.

The 38-year-old Earnhardt said he doesn’t feel any urgency to break through soon.

“I feel pretty young still. I feel like I’m in good shape. I feel young in my mind. I feel like I have good energy,” he said.

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