The two drivers just inside the top 10 in points as the Chase For The Sprint Cup nears held onto their positions at Michigan International Speedway Sunday, but had very different outlooks following the Pure Michigan 400.
Part of that could be the fact that Dale Earnhardt Jr. hasn’t made the Chase the last two years while Tony Stewart has.
Earnhardt Jr. ran well with the exception of a couple of runs while Stewart seemed to struggle the entire day.
Stewart finished ninth after restarting 12th on the final green-white-checkered restart while Earnhardt Jr. restarted 15th – and in the more difficult inside row – and wound up 14th.
Earnhardt Jr. ran in the top 10 much of the day and should have had a better finish, but with Clint Bowyer finishing eighth, Earnhardt Jr. remained ninth in the standings and is still 30 points ahead of 11th-place Bowyer. Stewart is 10th in the standings, six points behind Earnhardt Jr. and 24 points ahead of Bowyer.
Having snapped a six-race skid with a top-10 finish two weeks ago at Pocono, Earnhardt Jr. felt he was stronger than during a rough last two months.
“Our car was fast,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I was happy. We outran them all [the Chase bubble drivers] all day long. We outran those guys, and that was good.
“We’re a better team than we have been over the last couple of months. It was just frustrating there to have a green-white-checkered there that shuffled the damn finish. I don’t know what happened there. Guys just couldn’t finish the race. They had to run each other into the fence.”
With three races left before the Chase field is set, Stewart has a 24-point edge on Bowyer. For Stewart, he isn’t interested in just slipping into the Chase.
“At this point of the deal, if we are going to run this bad, it really doesn't matter whether we make the Chase or not because we are going to be occupying a spot in the Chase that somebody else that actually can run for a championship is going to be trying to take, because our stuff is so bad right now that we're just wasting one of those top-12 spots right now,” Stewart said.
Stewart said he couldn’t find a good balance with his car.
“I don’t know what we have got to do to get one [car] balanced for a day, but we can't,” Stewart said. “We haven't figured it out yet. We were on both sides of the coin all day long. Just back and forth between tight and loose. So we'll just take what we can get, I guess."
Earnhardt Jr. felt his problems were related to tires. He said is car was sensitive to any slight change in the sets of tires.
“I don't know whether they are bad sets of tires, but I put them on my car and they drive like crap,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “And then I put on another set and they would drive good. I don't know how to explain that. I've been doing that all my life.
“I ain't got an explanation for it yet. I had some awesome runs where the car was really fast, then I'd put on some tires and I just couldn't drive the car. So, you tell me. I don't know."
At the end, track position doomed Earnhardt Jr., who was 10th before his last pit stop.
“We probably shouldn't have pitted there at the end,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I don't know. We took two tires like a lot of guys and just didn't have the good fortune at the end on that last green-white-checkered.
“We were on the bottom, stuck behind the No. 00 [of David Reutimann] and some other people that were as slow as hell and just couldn't go nowhere."
That’s just the nature of the sport, Earnhardt Jr. said.
“At least we run good when we had our opportunities,” he said. “We had a pretty good car. We had some bad stuff happen on pit road. We got back up to 10th or ninth, drove it up there.”