Strong All-Star performance has Earnhardt Jr. looking forward to Coca-Cola 600By Kelly Crandall
Having not won a race in 2011 and with his 10 year automatic entrance into the All-Star race expired, he won it in 2000, Earnhardt Jr. had to race his way in for the second straight year. Heavily stressing on the racing his way in and not relying on the Sprint Fan Vote, which he had to last year.
Although he great appreciates his fans support, calling it a gift. It just wasn’t one he didn’t want on Saturday night, eager to earn his right to race and earn it he did.
The No. 88 Dale Jr. Foundation Chevrolet led all 40 laps in the Sprint Showdown, beating pole sitter AJ Allmendinger who had to come from behind after having flat tire before the green flag flew. Both would transferred into the All-Star race and the Fan Vote went to Bobby Labonte. Mission accomplished for Earnhardt Jr., now he got to race for the big money and he was ever grateful.
“It was great,” he said after the All-Star race. “I want to thank all the employees of the Dale Jr. Foundation and all the fans who donated and helped us with our causes. Our sponsors Diet Mountain Dew, National Guard for giving us the opportunity to raise awareness this weekend, put the decals on the car and Chevrolet, Sprint and NASCAR for doing all this.
“I want to thank the fans for coming out we had an awesome crowd, the best crowd I’ve seen at a race in a long time. That was great to see. Our race was pretty uneventful we just ran really hard and tried the best strategy we could to put ourselves in position to win. I think we did the best we could.”
In the end teammate Jimmie Johnson was in victory lane, except it could have been Earnhardt Jr. After moving through the field in the first segment he stayed on track for the second and finished second. He remained in the top 10 for segment three and then went on to win segment four.
It’s where he restarted for the last segment, a 10-lap dash for the cash. But when Matt Kenseth, who restarted second, spun his tires in front of Earnhardt Jr. it stacked up everyone in the outside lane, allowing the inside to drive away. Earnhardt Jr. knew they were in a bad position on the outside and he tried not to run into Kenseth.
“Anything is possible,” said Earnhardt Jr. about his chance to win. “My mind was open to whatever might happen in front of me and to try to reach out and take opportunities that presented themselves. I wasn’t really counting myself out just yet. If you are not on the front row for a 10-lap segment … two of the best drivers in the series started on the front row, they are hard to beat in a 10-lap run.”
It’s OK by Earnhardt Jr. though, his performance spoke for itself and he knows it can lead to even better things. Next weekend the NSCS will be right back at the Charlotte Motor Speedway for the longest race of the year, the Coca-Cola 600.
His winless streak now at 140 races, Earnhardt Jr. has high hopes for Sunday, telling crew chief Steve Letarte midway through the All-Star race that he was looking forward to the 600. Something he reiterated after his top five finish.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “When you run like this the week before it really makes you feel good. It really makes you look forward to it.”
Last year Earnhardt Jr. was just yards away from breaking his winless streak before the fuel tank ran dry coming off turn four. Kevin Harvick flew by for the win, Earnhardt Jr. coasted to a seventh place finish.
It was one of the much heartbreak that he, his team and his loyal fans have gone through over the years. There have been struggles, close calls and second place finishes. After 11 races in 2012 he sits third in points and has been running as competitively as Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Johnson, who have all won races and sit there in points with him.
His 88 team is still trying to get over the win hump. Saturday was another step in the right direction as he continually moved through the field and served notice. Letarte barely had to adjust the Chevrolet all night, it was fast from the get go with Earnhardt Jr. saying it was the best car he’s driven at Charlotte in a long time and he’ll get to show it again soon.
“I think we showed what we are capable of doing here next weekend,” he said. “We are probably going to bring the same car, we have a couple of ideas on how to make the car even faster, especially for qualifying that I hope will work out. I am real pleased with our effort.
“These races are little sprints and you really depend on the team to put the car out on the line ready to go, ready to take off, you can’t really wait for the car to come in or anything like that. Those guys did that all night. They built a great car. I had a lot of fun.”