Dale Earnhardt Jr. could smile after a 10th-place finish on a day when he not only had to pit under green with a loose wheel, but his team even had a wheel break on one of its jacks.
It seems as if Earnhardt Jr., who also overshot his pit on one stop at Phoenix International Raceway, is a magnet for those types of setbacks and mistakes.
“We’re just under a lot of pressure, man,” Earnhardt Jr. said after the race Sunday. “Even the parts feel it, I guess.”
Earnhardt Jr. overcame those issues on his way to his first top-10 finish in his last six starts dating back to last year. After he pitted under green late in the race, he could have gone the rest of the way on fuel. But when a caution came out with 26 laps remaining, Earnhardt Jr. was able to pit for fresh tires and went from 13th to 10th over the final 10 laps.
“I’m really happy with the way we finished and the way we were able to finish the race off,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “The guys worked hard and gave us a good strategy to keep us in position all day long and did the best they could.”
Starting 35th, Earnhardt Jr. was able to slip past the two big accidents in the first 70 laps of the race. “Just luck,” he said. What wasn’t luck was his ability to overcome the problems.
“I had a little bit more comfort with this car and was able to get out there and run hard and hope for the cautions to swing our way, and they did,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “We really didn’t undo that mess by ourselves.
“We had a little help there with that caution [with 13 laps to go]. … Right there at the end, I think we had [the car] the best.”
Working with crew chief Steve Letarte in only their second race together, Earnhardt Jr. gave Letarte the feedback he wanted.
“I wouldn’t say it was a good day,” Letarte said. “We need to execute better as a team. We didn’t have the best pit stops, had a loose wheel, but we bounced back, had a good stop at the end and fought hard.
“That’s what this group needs to do. … [Earnhardt Jr.] did a great job describing the car. I knew what he needed. I wasn’t sure I could give it to him, but it was very crystal clear what he needed in the race car.”
The biggest problem was the loose wheel, which forced Earnhardt Jr. to pit under green with 72 laps remaining and drop from 13th to one lap down in 23rd. The wheel definitely was loose, Letarte said, and Earnhardt Jr. rode it out long enough to get within the fuel window in case the remainder of the race went green. It didn’t, but Earnhardt Jr. didn’t do anything to hurt his finish.
“He ran just long enough to get us in the [fuel] window and not too long to give away the time,” Letarte said. “It was a textbook way to recover from a mistake.”
An accident late in the Daytona 500 resulted in Earnhardt Jr. coming to PIR 22nd in the standings. The 10th-place finish lifted Earnhardt Jr. to 17th.
Earnhardt Jr. said the biggest hurdle of the weekend was starting so far in the back.
“We had a good enough car to run with them guys and kind of proved it in a couple of instances, but you’ve got to get by them,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “You get stuck behind them and it’s hard to really show how good the car is. … Definitely a step in the right direction.”