Pedley: We Should Have Listened To Earnhardt Jr.
By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
JOLIET, Ill. – Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s optimism and good mood during Friday’s media gathering at Chicagoland Speedway almost seemed bizarre.
Yes, he was in the Chase and still mathematically involved in a run for the 2011 championship. But, come on: He was also having one of his typical Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Hendrick Motorsports seasons – meaning, remarkable for the wrong reasons.
Seems he knew something his eye-rolling critics did not. Because, after one race of the Chase, Earnhardt is in this thing.
Monday’s rain-delayed Chase-opening Sprint Cup race at Chicagoland Speedway was a lot like the regular-season portion of the schedule which preceded it for Dale Earnhardt Jr. – frenetic.
His number 88 was all over timing and scoring monitors Monday. He was seldom in the top 15, almost never in the top 10 and never in the top five…until the end of race.
But then, there he was on the final page of the scoring monitor sitting at No. 3. And at No. 5 in points. And at No. 1 on a Hendrick Motorsports Chase roster which includes drivers who have won a nine championships between them.
Earnhardt certainly needed luck to get his podium finish – luck with such things as fuel mileage – but none of that matters this morning.
“Obviously we gained a lot of spots there at the end with guys that were short of fuel,” Earnhardt said. “But we were running really well at the end. The car struggled off and on
throughout the day. And we didn’t have great track position either. But at the end the car was really good. And I think we were up in the top-10 there.”
Considering the season Earnhardt had – he was very good through the first 14 races of the season, sitting in the top three in points as late as the start of the first Michigan race in mid June, but plunged like newspaper stocks in the 11 races leading up to Chicagoland and had to squeek into the Chase as the final non-wild card driver – few expected him to make any noise at all in the playoffs.
Earnhardt, however, declared on Friday’s media day in Joliet, “I have a shot.” A shot at winning the championship.
He said it again from the Chicagoland podium.
“You know what, I felt like we would do well in The Chase,” Earnhardt said after the race. “These are good tracks for me. And the tracks where I ran poorly just aren’t – if you look at my track record I don’t run good at those tracks.”
The Chase schedule did look promising for Earnhardt and his team.
The series had raced at eight of the 10 tracks in the Chase already this year and in those races, Earnhardt finished in the top 10 in six of them. Included were second-place runs at Martinsville and Kansas. His average finish in those eight races is 7.6.
At Chicagoland, Earnhardt had a victory but, his average finish was 16th in 10 starts so numbers-wise, the track in Joliet should have made for a tough start for Earnhardt and the 88 team.
But there was Earnhardt in mid September finishing like it was early April.
“Basically everybody ran out” of fuel, Earnhardt fessed-up when asked if he felt like the good times had returned. “The last lap I was counting them when I went by. I don’t know what place I was in to be honest with you so I didn’t know where I would finish until after Steve (Letarte, his crew chief) told me.
“But I just knew we were going to get a good finish if we didn’t run out of fuel. I was happy where we were. I thought we had really improved throughout the day. And, yeah, it felt a lot similar to how we ran earlier in the year where we would ‑‑ we would use strategy to improve our finishing position.”
There are still nine races to go in the Chase. And the next one is at New Hampshire where Earnhardt finished 15th just two months ago.
But, the guess here is that later this week, if Earnhardt says he has a shot at winning his first championship again, eyes among fans and media will roll a little less wildly.2 Comments