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Junior Cooks Up New Plan: Swing For The Fences

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, October 4 2013

Dale Earnhardt Jr. says his plan for the next seven races is pretty basic. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Christa L Thomas)

ROANOKE, Texas – NASCAR superstar Dale Earnhardt Jr. figures he’ll have to do some major point-shaving if he has any chance of contending for the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.

Junior is in 10th place and 57 points behind championship leader Matt Kenseth heading into Round 4 of the 10-event Chase, Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway. After spending part of Thursday afternoon testing on the 1.5-mile Kansas layout, Junior flew into the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex to promote next month’s AAA Texas 500 at nearby Texas Motor Speedway.

Junior’s visit to the Hard Eight Pit BBQ benefitted Speedway Children’s Charities-Texas Chapter. He was joined by Hard Eight Pit owner Chad Decker, a BBQ pit master, for a tour of the restaurant before the pair gave a lesson in BBQ 101 grilling tips to Junior Nation. In-between comments about his newfound passion as a “foodie” for regional barbecue recipes and his longtime love affair with the NFL’s Washington Redskins, Junior’s conversation actually turned to the tail-end of NASCAR’s playoffs.

“Well, you look at how many points you’re behind, not really where you’re at,” Junior said during a media session prior to addressing those adoring fans. “I think going into Phoenix (Chase Round 9 on Nov. 10), I think you need to be within 20 points at least – and that’s still pretty far out. That’s 20 spots. You’ve got to beat not only the guy that’s leading 20 spots ahead of you but there’s likely guys in-between that you’ve got to beat as well. I mean, just beating all them throughout that two-race stretch is going to be challenging. But outside of 20 points is going to be difficult.”

Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champion now in his first year of driving for Joe Gibbs Racing, will take an eight-point lead over five-time series champ Jimmie Johnson – Junior’s Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Impala teammate – into Friday afternoon’s practice. Kyle Busch, Kenseth’s JGR Toyota Camry teammate, is third and only 12 points out of first. TMS will host Round 8 of the Chase on Nov. 3, with the season concluding at the 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 17. “June Bug” has done the math and is not fooling his own bad self.

“There’s not much point in thinking about it. Just go out there and do it,” said Junior, sporting a green Diet Mountain Dew t-shirt and jeans. “But I think that 20-point bubble is what you look at going into Phoenix as who’s got a shot at it and who doesn’t.” Phoenix International Raceway is a 1-mile oval.

To that end, Junior was among 38 Cup drivers who tested Goodyear Racing’s radically new “multi-zone tread” tire during a three-plus hour session that was delayed by rain. Johnson, winner of last Sunday’s race at Dover International Speedway, topped the speed chart at 182.648 mph, followed by Carl Edwards in his Roush Fenway Racing Ford Fusion at 182.531 mph and Kurt Busch’s Furniture Row Racing Chevy at 181.971 mph. Kenseth – winner of the first two Chase races and last two Cup events at Kansas Speedway – was 13th on the chart. Junior, meanwhile, exited the session generally pleased with his No. 88 National Guard Chevy.

“We’ve had some good speeds. Just looking at the speed chart, all the speeds and laps averaged-out to we were in the top-10, far as that goes,” Junior said. “That’s kind of the best gauge that I know of as to how competitive we are.

“I didn’t really enjoy how the car drove but I don’t know that anybody did. Everybody’s cars were really, really tight. The track, they’ve done something in the corners with some rubber – some kind of a machine that puts rubber down – I think that’s counter-intuitive to what we need. And the tire itself is that new two-zone tire where it’s got the hard shoulder – the compound is much harder on the shoulder of the tire than the rest – so that has taken a bit of grip out of the car as well. But hopefully it’s a safer tire and definitely I’d rather have the safety aspect of it.”

Goodyear has developed two zones on these right side tires – an outer zone dubbed the “traction zone,” made of a sticky and more grip-oriented compound, and an “inner zone” known as the “endurance zone” built with a firmer compound to help prolong tire life.

Goodyear’s multi-zone tread tire debuted at Atlanta Motor Speedway last month on a relatively rough 1.5-mile surface. At Kansas Speedway, where the surface was repaved last year, the “multi-zone tread” radial tire design theoretically will add grip to the new, slick surface.

Junior, who qualified for the Chase for the third consecutive season and sixth time in his career, began the playoffs with a thud – a 35th place finish courtesy of an engine failure on the 1.5-mile Chicagoland Speedway. But he rebounded with top-10 results at the 1.058-mile New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Dover, where he tied his season-best finish of second on Dover’s all-concrete Monster Mile.

“Just as it’s been hard for us and put us in a hole, it’s given an advantage to others ahead of us and they’re gladly going to take it,” said Junior, who is paired with crew chief Steve Letarte. “The last two weeks have been great, probably the best two cars I’ve had all season at New Hampshire and Dover. And Dover’s never been a really strong track for us. That was just really encouraging, the last two weeks.”

Junior’s Dover finish moved him from 13th to 10th in points and basically changed his approach with seven events to go. “I’d like to try to get it all back at once,” said Junior, laughing at the prospect. “Yeah. That’s right. We’re swinging for the fences every weekend. You have to have a good mile-and-a-half program because there’s a lot of races in the Chase (five) and just throughout the season. We ran really good here last time at Texas (placed 29th on April 13), so we feel good about our mile-and-a-halfs.”

Recall that Junior, son of seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt, recorded his emotional, first Cup win at TMS in April 2000. That’s one of his 12 top-10 finishes on the 1.5-mile quadoval in Fort Worth.

“I think I’d (rather) take the position of being toward the front and having the opportunity to feel like I had a better shot at winning a championship than where I’m at right now,” said Junior, a 38-year-old resident of Kannapolis, N.C. “But I don’t feel a lot of pressure. I know that those guys up in the top three definitely are mindful of every lap they run and try to avoid disaster and any kind of setback. I don’t have to worry about that so much. I just kind of get to throw it all out there.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, October 4 2013
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