When will Earnhardt Jr. visit victory lane again?

I just looked at the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule and realized that six races have come and gone and I have yet to write a single column about Dale Earnhardt Jr. Wow. That’s a record-breaker.

One of the most enjoyable things I do each week is serve as a regular contributor on a couple of SC-based sports talk radio programs. I seem to have somehow convinced the shows’ hosts – Allen Smothers in Florence and Aaron Marks in Myrtle Beach – that I’m some kind of expert on the inside workings of the NASCAR world. Suckers.

While it would be admittedly be cool if longtime proximity could create experts in various fields by some of osmosis, would you really trust your cardiologist’s administrative assistant to perform your angioplasty? Doubtful.

On the other hand, she could probably describe the procedure to you pretty thoroughly, and that’s where I come in. It’s a blast. Generally we have a pretty decent variety of topics queued up to discuss, such as the most recent race, any penalties and fines, upcoming events, and the latest controversial Brad Keselowski comment.

We talk about Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, a lot, because he gives us a lot to talk about. Danica Patrick and Tony Stewart have been pretty hot topics so far this season, one for not quite meeting early-season expectations and the other for wildly exceeding them. You can probably figure out which is which.

About a week ago, I was asked to explain in detail the (again) new format for the Sprint All-Star Race. I think I could have done a better job with the angioplasty thing.

But there is one topic so predictable that we actually have an over/under side bet on it in the studio. Inevitably, a call or e-mail will come in asking the following question: “When is Junior going to win a race?”

While NASCAR has become ubiquitous in the mainstream media, certain of the sport’s stars, like Geico’s gecko, the e-trade baby or my personal favorite, Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the World, have become the individual faces of their franchises without bearing their actual names.

The Stanley Cup playoffs have just gotten under way. I can’t tell you squat about hockey, but I know who Sidney Crosby is. Many of us were riveted by The Masters over the Easter weekend, but legions of folks who have never watched a single golf tournament seem to know an awful lot – way too much, in fact — about Tiger Woods.

While some may disagree, a good argument could be made that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the current face of NASCAR. Sometimes quietly and at other times quite publicly, he has become the central axis around which a major portion of NASCAR-mania revolves. There are moments in the universe when that elusive but specific combination of location, timing and circumstance converges in just the right way, and the result is a supernova that for a while eclipses everything around it with the sheer force of its light. Currently, in NASCAR terms, Junior is that super star.

Of course, the top of anything is an exhilarating but precarious place to be. The view is spectacular as long as you continue to look forward, or upward. Just don’t look down, because all you’ll see there is a very slippery slope.

Earnhardt, who still reigns as the most insanely popular driver in the sport, represents the very pinnacle of NASCAR recognition. Fans who don’t technically “pull for him,” as the saying goes, still like the guy. They know who he is, of course, but they feel they know him, too. They have watched him grow up, after all.

Fame may not fit Junior as comfortably as a tailor-made suit, and in fact he seems almost embarrassed by it at times, but he wears it well, through good times and bad. It has admittedly been difficult to watch him work so hard and come so close so many times. Yet although he has brought home only one winner’s trophy since signing with Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, he has remained both grounded and gracious throughout the process.

Happily, this looks like his year. The No. 88 Chevy has been strong all season and was sitting a solid second in the driver standings headed into the race weekend at Texas Motor Speedway April 13-15, only six points behind the leader.

I don’t know when Dale Earnhardt Jr. will get that next win, although in my heart I truly feel it won’t be too much longer. Let me be the first to admit that I’m ready for it to happen, so we can all celebrate, heave a huge sigh of relief, get past it, move on and talk about something else, like figuring out that whole All-Star Race thing. That one’s gonna take a while.

NASCAR columnist Cathy Elliott is also the author of the book “Chicken Soup for the Soul: NASCAR.” Visit her online at www.mybrainonnascar.com.

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