Dale Earnhardt Jr. is ninth in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series points standings, and if he hopes to remain inside the top 10, he knows he’ll need a good run at Auto Club Speedway this weekend.
But that’s easier said than done, according to the 36-year-old Hendrick Motorsports driver.
“California is a track I need to run better at,” he said, and a look at his record on the 2-mile oval does nothing to refute that.
It’s been more than three years since he last registered a top-10 run at California, and he’s managed only four in 18 career starts. In fact, he’s fallen out more times (five) than he’s finished in the top 10.
While the reasons for that are numerous, Earnhardt Jr. says one of the bigger issues for him has been that the track “is flat, and doesn’t have a ton of grip.
“Basically, you have to keep a really good aero platform and keep the car from getting too free off the corners,” he said. “That’s been one of our challenges in the past.”
ACS provides a unique challenge in that teams have to find the perfect balance between grip and aero (downforce).
“It’s probably the hardest track there is to balance aero versus mechanical grip,” crew chief Steve Letarte said.
And seams in the pavement in turns 1 and 2 “are a major issue,” according to Letarte.
“If you have an ill-handling car or a car that needs to use a couple lanes, it’s very hard to cross over the paving seams,” he said.
Through this season’s first four races, Earnhardt Jr. and his No. 88 team have shown steady progress, rebounding from an accident in the season-opening Daytona 500 to post a pair of top-10s before last week’s 11th-place finish at Bristol.
It’s been solid enough to carry him from 22nd in points into the top 10, but Letarte said his team isn’t resting on how well it’s done thus far. Every race, he said, is a new beginning for the team that has ideas of returning to the winner’s circle.
“We are really going to every track like it’s the first time we’ve been there,” Letarte said. “We didn’t try to raise the excitement or expectations at Bristol, we are going to do the same thing for California.”
And that begins with qualifying.
After winning the pole at Daytona, Earnhardt Jr. has started no better than 22nd in the past three races. Still, he’s managed to race his way into the top 10, for the most part.
“I would consider qualifying in the top 20 as decent and top 15 as a more realistic goal,” Letarte said. “I would be happy with a top-15 qualifying effort.”
On that front, it seems the team still has a ways to go. But in race trim, the improvement, while gradual, has been hard to miss.
“There is no reason you should ever run outside the top 15 with a car that doesn’t have any mechanical problems,” Letarte said. “Tenth to 15th is where you should get with a car that you aren’t too happy with. You should get in the top 10 with a chassis that’s good, and if you really hit the chassis setup then you need to come in with a top-five finish.
“That’s been our goal outside of Daytona, and that will be our goal at Fontana.”