Dale Earnhardt Jr. came up one spot short Sunday. For the second week in a row NASCAR’s most popular driver came up on position short of the win. For another week, as race winner Carl Edwards celebrated, Earnhardt could only think about what might have been.
What might have been however, almost didn’t happen. Starting in 20th, the Hendrick Motorsports driver couldn’t get going on the very first lap. His Chevy lost power and he was forced to pit. It appeared that the day would end in disaster for Earnhardt. As it turned out, the problem was actually with a safety system.
“We got the Roush system on our cars for the stuck‑throttle issue, and just warming the brakes up, I engaged that system to kill the throttle,” Earnhardt said after the race. “I was warming the brakes up like I always do, and apparently I applied too much pressure and it killed the motor.
“We’ll work on that and maybe raise that threshold a little bit because I wasn’t really using the brake that much,” he added.
The crew quickly recycled the cars Electronic Control Unit. The same unit is universal across all NASCAR racecars.
“I just needed to cycle the ECU, reset that, came to pit road and did that,” Earnhardt said. “I probably could’ve done it on the track and saved ourselves a lot of trouble, but you don’t know what’s going on at that particular point, and you listen to the first thing anybody tells you when it comes to direction, and the first thing that my spotter said was that if I need to pit, I need to come on now. We got on pit road, cycled it, lost a couple laps. “
Earnhardt further explained how the system works. The system is used in the event of a stuck throttle and Is activated when the brake pedal is used.
“If your throttle is stuck and you mash the brake to a certain, you’re going to mash the (expletive) out of that brake when the throttle sticks, it’ll shut the motor off,” Earnhardt said. “That’s a system, that’s one of the two systems that you have to choose from in this sport. The other is a button on the steering wheel. I don’t like the button on the steering wheel, because when the throttle sticks, I ain’t going to think mash a button. I’ll be in the fence before it’s over with. So the brake thing works too good.”
Earnhardt would indeed lose two laps. However he fought hard on the track and had a few wave arounds and was soon back on the lead lap. By lap 198 Earnhardt had moved to 11th.
“Greg (crew chief Greg Ives) did a good job getting the wave‑arounds and knowing when to take them and stuff, and we got back on the lead lap,” Earnhardt said. “We had about a 10th‑place car. We weren’t really that good all day. We tried a setup that we’ve never really ran here before, just trying to learn a little something going forward, and we’ll go home and science it out a little bit.”
By lap 217 of 500, Earnhardt was 10th. From there he continued moving forward. While Earnhardt struggled, a prerace VIP watched from the Earnhardt pits. Former NFL quarterback Peyton Manning spent time with Earnhardt prior to the race. During the race however, Manning wasn’t on Earnhardt’s mind.
“Wasn’t really thinking about it, but I was glad ‑‑ he probably left when we got two laps down,” Earnhardt joked. “He didn’t stick around to see our comeback.”
“But we just did a lot of good things today and got real lucky on a lot of restarts,” he added. “But I was glad he was here. I’m very curious as to what he thought about our sport because he’s been to Indy a couple times, to the Indy 500, but this is a real unique racetrack, and when we went around the track for intros, he was pretty surprised. He couldn’t believe the banking and all that. I tried to explain it to him, but you really can’t until you come here and see it.”
On the final restart with five laps to go Edwards went to the lead, Earnhardt restarted third and went to second behind Edwards, Kurt Busch was third. Busch and Earnhardt fought for position but Busch got loose and Earnhardt was able to get clear. By then however the win was out of Earnhardt’s grasp. He had to settle for second place yet again.
“I’d love to get a win,” Earnhardt said. “We weren’t really as close today as we were last week. We had a really good car last week, a top‑3 car. This car wasn’t that good, but we kind of understand why. We’re going outside the box as far as what we typically run here for setup.”
“And that’s good. You didn’t ‑‑ the setup didn’t quite work but you still had a good day and you can go home and learn and try to science it out and make that setup work.,” he added. “I like finishing good, and that’s going to help us get into the Chase pretty comfortably if we don’t have any major issues, but we certainly want to win. Going to victory lane is important to our sponsors, and it’s obviously fun. But it’s good for our team to set ourselves up to not have to worry about the Chase anymore. Even though you know you’re a top‑5 team or top‑10 team that should make the Chase without any issue, you can’t help but count them points to 16th or 17th each week.”
Despite not winning for two weeks in a row, there isn’t any worry for Earnhardt. He said he is simply having a good time.
“I turned 40. Quit panicking. It is what it is these days,” he said. “You know, as I got older, I tried harder to enjoy what I’m doing, and not get really upset and too out of shape when things aren’t going our way, plus I know Greg and them guys are on the pit box trying everything they can, and for me to ‑‑ they’re the only ones I’m going to be able to yell at. So for me to ‑‑ it doesn’t do any good to be hollering at them or upset or just lose your mind, and the over‑the‑wall guys especially, we don’t really spend a ton of time with the over‑the‑wall guys, and they’re real sensitive. They’re big ol’ guys and athletes, but they’ve got big hearts, too, so you can’t be screaming and coming unglued because they don’t want to work for people like that.”
“Yeah, just trying to have more fun and enjoy it,” Earnhardt added. “We had a little trouble early, and it just made today more difficult and made the challenge more fun, made it a bigger challenge than it was, and to run second, it’s a great feeling to come back from what we did. It’s something to smile about.”