Dale Earnhardt Jr looks out of the garage during practice for Sunday's NASCAR Coca-Cola 600 Sprint Cup series auto race in Concord, N.C., Saturday, May 26, 2012. (AP Photo/Rick Havner)
CONCORD, N.C. -- At first Dale Earnhardt Jr. was relieved he didn't fall further back than seventh at last year's Coca-Cola 600. Then he realized what he had lost for just about a gallon of gas.
"After a while, you start thinking about, 'Oh, yeah, we really came close to winning a race,"' Earnhardt said this week. "It was really unfortunate there wasn't just a little bit more gas in the car."
If there were, Earnhardt wouldn't have faced an additional year's worth of questions about why he hasn't won a Sprint Cup race since 2008 at Michigan. The drought has grown to 140 races and is a focal point at every track or appearance by Earnhardt.
"I've said it all year long," he says, "that I think we're a little bit better than we were last year."
It looked like Earnhardt was the best at Charlotte Motor Speedway a year ago when he broke free on a late restart to take the lead. He got the white flag just fine, then ran out of gas on the front straightaway and coasted through he final turn before Kevin Harvick passed him for the win.
Harvick said afterwards he "felt so stinking bad" for Earnhardt because he knew how much the Hendrick Motorsports driver wanted to win. The fans roared when Earnhardt, voted the sport's most popular driver the past nine years, moved in front and were equally stunned when his tank ran dry.
Earnhardt was grateful to hang on to seventh as he thought about his position in the year-end championship chase. Then the disappointment of what happened swept over him.
"I was really unfortunate there wasn't just a little bit more gas in the car or whatever to get us to victory lane because that would've been a great way to cap off a pretty good weekend," Earnhardt said. "So it was a bit frustrating over time."
Martin Truex Jr., who hasn't won since 2007, finished 26th in last year's race and understood what his fellow driver was going through. It takes so much, Truex said, to get into position that to have it snatched away so close to the finish line is maddening. "Coming off turn four and running out of gas is about the absolute worst way to lose a race," Truex said. "I definitely felt for him there."
Earnhardt, who'll start 12th tonight in Sprint Cup's longest race, feels he's in a strong position to contend again. He said he's been faster at nearly every track he's gone to this season and doesn't expect that to change in Charlotte. Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon has seen things building with Earnhardt's No. 88 team.
A year ago, Earnhardt came close to winning because of fuel mileage strategy, Gordon said. This time, Earnhardt's got one of the fastest, most consistent cars in the garage and is capable of outrunning anyone.
"All that builds confidence," Gordon said. "And it just makes your team that much stronger and allows you to go to the next race with a shot at winning," Gordon said.
That could apply to all Hendrick Motorsports teams. The longtime Sprint Cup program has been on a major roll the past few weeks. Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson won owner Rick Hendrick's 200th race at Darlington two weeks ago. Johnson followed that with a win in the All-Star race here last Saturday night. Even Earnhardt picked up a trophy last week, winning the Sprint Showdown to get into the All-Star race.
Johnson starts third behind the Richard Petty Motorsports duo of Aric Almirola and Marcos Ambrose, who finished 1-2 in Thursday night's qualifying. Johnson's won nine times at Charlotte, including three Coca-Cola 600s.
Earnhardt's tried not to think too much about his late-race flame out at Charlotte last year. He channels any remaining frustration into working hard to make sure nothing goes wrong Sunday night.
Earnhardt expects his team to make the right calls and get himself up front when it matters most and "we hopefully have enough fuel to get to the finish line," he said.