Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally leaves California ‘pretty happy’ after top five finishBy Kelly Crandall
Entering Sunday’s Auto Club 400 his average finish was a 21.7 and comes off a 12th place finish last season. Never one to qualify or race well out West, the driver of the No. 88 Diet Mountain Dew / National Guard Chevrolet was looking for just a solid weekend this time out.
When the rains came and the race was called official, Earnhardt Jr. was credited with a third place finish, his first top five at the speedway since 2007. The race ran 129 of its scheduled 200 laps.
“We had a really good car,” Earnhardt Jr. said afterwards. “The car was really quick in practice at the end of the day [Saturday]. We carried the same car into the race. I was real happy about that.
“We started off moving forward, had some really good pit strategies, pitting a little bit earlier than most guys. Steve [Letarte, crew chief] brought us down pit road and we gained a little bit of time, passed some guys on pit road.”
When the rain came and brought out the caution, Earnhardt Jr. had raced his way into the top five. It was the highest he had been all day after starting 14th and running top 10 for the entire race. They stuck to their strategy of short pitting once the race began and with the race unfolding as it did, things fell their way.
When Denny Hamlin and teammate Jimmie Johnson, running second and fourth, came down pit road Earnhardt Jr. moved up to third. The 88 team was confident that the rain wasn’t going to stop and ended up making the right choice by staying out.
“Pretty happy,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Pretty uneventful weekend. Other than qualifying miscue we had, we’ve had a really good weekend.”
Sunday’s finish was the second best of the season for Earnhardt Jr. after he started the year by finishing second to Matt Kenseth in the Daytona 500. Since then however, the team has taken themselves out of better finishes.
They struggled in Phoenix, fought the handle of the car in Las Vegas after leading early, and last weekend in Bristol made the decision to give up track position and pit late in the event and Earnhardt Jr. was busted with speeding.
On Sunday, the pit decisions of the competition helped Earnhardt Jr. in the end.
“I was surprised that everyone didn’t stay out,” he said. “I was pretty certain by watching the weather and studying the weather all night long and all day today that once it began to rain, it wasn’t going to stop. I was surprised that some guys came down pit road and gave up track position.”
Heading into Martinsville next Sunday Earnhardt Jr. now sits third in points, just 17 markers behind leader Greg Biffle. He’s the highest Hendrick Motorsports driver in points.
“They outran us all day long,” said Earnhardt Jr. of his teammates. “Jeff [Gordon] had a little trouble on pit road. Jimmie, they decided to come down pit road because they thought it was not going to rain all day.
“They’ve been beating us most of the weekend. We’ve really been competitive though. I like how our season is going so far. If we can keep going like this, we might get some opportunities like we did last year of winning some races and seal the deal eventually.”
Much like Martinsville last season, he led with two laps to go before being passed by eventually winner Kevin Harvick. The Virginia short track has always been one of his best tracks and one that he looks forward to each season.
Martinsville is fun he says. And thus far, his 2012 season has been as well.
“I’m really happy,” he said. “I’m performing better. Most of the credit has to go to Steve and the team. Those guys did a great job today on pit road. We had some really good stops.
“Steve is doing an amazing job. He deserves most of the credit for how well we’re running. He’s giving me really good cars, cars that are fun to drive, relatively easy to drive.”