Earnhardt Jr. yet to prove to himself that he is 'back'

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. --- It's easy to sit on the couch and list all the things you would have done if you'd been driving Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s car over the final few laps at Martinsville Speedway.

Kevin Harvick (left) passed Dale Earnhardt Jr. late in Sunday's Sprint Cup event, denying the sport's most popular driver a victory and extending Junior's winless streak to 99 races.   Associated Press
Associated Press
Kevin Harvick (left) passed Dale Earnhardt Jr. late in Sunday's Sprint Cup event, denying the sport's most popular driver a victory and extending Junior's winless streak to 99 races.

Of course, most of us don't have the slightest idea how to drive a race car, let alone maneuver it around a tricky paperclip-shaped short track with Kevin Harvick bearing down on the bumper. And nobody has any idea what it's like to be Earnhardt, who must balance the life of luxury he's created as NASCAR's most popular driver with the burden of being the son of a seven-time champion.

Toss in his failure to win a championship, a losing streak that's closing in on three years and constant questions about his ability, confidence and desire, and, well, it becomes pretty difficult to figure out just what Earnhardt should have done Sunday at Martinsville.

Only Earnhardt knows what was going through his mind with that long-overdue victory finally in sight. All he's heard for three years is how NASCAR's success depends on him, and if Earnhardt was winning again, then just maybe the television ratings and attendance problems would be solved.

And that rabid fan base, so passionate in its support of the prodigal son, has literally been starving for just a smidgen of success.

Maybe he should have forced Harvick to move him out of the way. But he didn't, and Harvick, with a faster car, earned it with a solid pass.

Then he got back on Harvick's bumper for one last shot at it, and maybe he should have wrecked Harvick to take back the win.

He didn't, though, and his crew chief said that was the right thing to do.

Maybe he learned on Sunday that he can get to the front again, and wins might not be that far away.

As he reflected, though, on what might have been, he couldn't help but wonder what he could have done differently.

Knowing that there was possibly something that he did that cost him that victory forced him to temper his excitement with the reality.

"Well, I ain't really proved it to myself yet," Earnhardt said when asked if "he's back."

"I'll let you know when I feel like I'm back, personally. We got some work to do still, and you know, we are faster, we are more competitive than last year. But we still got a little ways to go."

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