Dale Earnhardt Jr. may have been a bit frustrated early Sunday morning. NASCAR’s most popular driver stood on pit road wondering what could have been as nearby Kyle Busch celebrated his fourth consecutive NASCAR National Series touring race win in the last eight days. Earnhardt had fought from a lap down thanks to a loose tire, missed a late race accident but only had a second place finish to show for it.
“We need a win,” Earnhardt said. “We’d love a win; I know our fans want a win really bad. Trust me man, we’re all working really hard and running great every week.”
Earnhardt and his Hendrick Motorsports crew have been running well in the early part of the season. Sunday’s finish marked the second runner-up finish for Earnhardt in the first seven races of the season. After a rain delay of two hours Saturday night, Earnhardt had worked his way from his 16th place starting spot to 13th when a NASCAR mandated caution flew on lap 29. The crew was able to get Earnhardt out in quick fashion and he was able to restart inside the top 10. After the restart, Earnhardt was soon inside the top five and as high as second at one point.
Trouble came on lap 204. While running third, Earnhardt reported a possible loose wheel. Not wanting to take any chances Earnhardt pitted under green. While refueling during the stop spilled fuel ignited in the pit stall and Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevy trailed a bit of flame leaving pit road. Both fires quickly went out but in a case of bad timing, Earnhardt who had returned to the track a lap down, become trapped a lap in arrears when Josh Wise crashed in turn 3 bringing out a caution soon after. In a reversal of fortunes though, Earnhardt was the first car a lap down and was able to get back on the lead lap and restarted after the caution in 14th.
“Very fortunate to get the Lucky Dog there,” Earnhardt said. “We were going to have to take a wave‑around either way, and kind of got back up there a little bit, and then we pitted for tires and lost a couple spots there, but just because some guys stayed out.”
Over the course of the final 100 laps of the 334, Earnhardt methodically worked his way forward entering the top 10 on lap 261. Two quick cautions, on lap 278 and another 4 laps later forced crews to play the strategy game. The leaders all pitted during the first caution and Earnhardt restarted ninth. But under the next caution soon after, crew chief Greg Ives elected to keep his driver out.
“So Greg, we were really, really loose,” Earnhardt later said. “He was going to put a half a round of wedge in the car and a half a pound in the right front, and I told him I wanted to put in perspective, the run before I was two inches up on the track bar and the last run I was two inches down, so I had a four‑inch swing in the track bar. That’s a good percent, percent a half a wedge that he needs to put in the car so I can get the track bar back where I want it.”
Earnhardt restarted fifth with 33 laps to go. He would soon in third behind Busch and Joey Logano. In the final laps he was able to get by Logano but came up short of the win.
“We got lucky at the end to be able to restart on the inside,” Earnhardt said. “The outside was kind of difficult, and we restarted fifth and were able to get up to third and raced the 22 at the end.”
“It was fun,” he added. “I enjoyed driving the car tonight. The car was very loose and very challenging but a lot of fun for me. Obviously our car was good, so passing guys we had a lot of passing, which with the ’14 or ’15 package, I’d have never got by Joey, so it was fun to have an opportunity to sort of set somebody up and get it by him there at the end, and that’s due to the direction we went this year with the low downforce. Pretty cool.”
Earnhardt led the Hendrick Motorsports contingent all of who finished in the top 10. Jimmie Johnson was fourth, Chase Elliott was fifth and Kasey Kahne finished eighth.
“I definitely think it was a solid night,” Earnhardt said. “It’s not a perfect night. We would love to turn all four cars in the top 10 to all four cars in the top 5, and I think that’s a goal we have to shoot for. I think we have a team and people that are capable of doing that, so we want to keep working at it. I think as I said before, we’re …for us, we’re excited to run in the top 5. We’re also not content, and we want to be contenders, and running fifth isn’t a contender. You’ve got to be up a little higher.”
“That’s our goal,” he added. “We’ll keep working at it.”