- Associated Press - Friday, June 1, 2012

DOVER, DEL. (AP) - Dale Earnhardt Jr. is hoping to pick up the next memorable victory for Hendrick Motorsports.

First, Jimmie Johnson raced to owner Rick Hendrick’s 200th win. Then Kasey Kahne earned his first victory with Hendrick in the Coca-Cola 600.

Next? Well, Earnhardt brings his bewildering 141-race winless drought into Sunday’s Sprint Cup stop at Dover International Speedway.

While his teammates take turns playing hot potato with the checkered flag, Earnhardt is stuck wondering when his time will come.

“I’m not competitive on the race track with my teammates at all,” he said, “but when you see those guys win, you do wish it was you going to Victory Lane.”

He can stop the streak with his first win on Dover’s 1-mile track since 2001. Much like the overall arc of his career, his more recent runs on the concrete have been cruel. He did post a third-place finish in the May race last season, but otherwise failed to finish better than 20th in four of the last five races at Dover.

Earnhardt takes some solace in the fact he’s been consistently strong this season and is parked in fourth place in the points standings. He has two runner-up finishes in the No. 88 and nine top 10s in 12 races _ after he had 12 top 10s all of last season.

The cable channel Speed posted, “Dale Jr. inching closer to first win this season,” during Friday’s Cup practice.

He’s getting close.

But no one connected with the sport has to tell Earnhardt close is not enough. He has to win.

Earnhardt has dissected the streak over the last four years and knows everything from bad luck to strategy to ability have played a role in keeping his career win total stuck on 18 since 2008. Earnhardt, who had the third-best speed at 155.966 mph in Friday’s final practice, boasts the confidence of a champion this season because of the strong finishes, great cars, and a healthy relationship with crew chief Steve Letarte.

Plus, he’s the top Hendrick driver in the standings. Earnhardt is 18 points behind leader Greg Biffle, Johnson is fifth, Kahne 15th and Jeff Gordon 22nd _ not quite the Hendrick dominance that’s often expected from a sterling organization with 201 wins in their rearview mirror.

Hendrick would love all four of his cars in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

“I felt like all four cars have been really strong from the start of the year, and once Jimmie broke through at Darlington and won that race, we’ve been able to go on a little roll,” Kahne said. “So I think our cars are great. The teams are working really well together and I’ve enjoyed being part of that.”

Earnhardt sees this season as the one where he can make a serious run at winning his first championship. Earnhardt’s career-best finish in the Sprint Cup standings was third in 2003. Under the Chase format, he finished fifth in 2004 and 2006, and made the field in 2008 _ his first season with Hendrick _ and last year when he finished seventh.

“We’re trying to make one,” he said. “We’re trying to put ourselves in the Chase, and we are going to try to be one of the strongest teams when that time comes. I wouldn’t call ourselves a contender, but we got a chance to be one this year the way we are doing it.”

NASCAR’s most popular driver has felt close to winning before and satisfying his massive and supportive fan base.

Instead, he’s the one offering handshakes and congratulations to his teammates.

“We’ve been wanting to win for so long,” Earnhardt said. “It’s a good thing. I think it motivate you to work harder, and try to find Victory Lane that much harder if at all possible. It doesn’t have really a negative effect on me or the team when those guys go out and win. But, you do wish it was you.”

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