Earnhardt Jr. battles back for runner-up finish, grabs point lead in CaliforniaBy Kelly Crandall
There’s a new closer in the Sprint Cup Series and he happens to be the new point leader heading into the Easter off weekend.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. earned another second place finish on Sunday and in the process recorded his best career finish at the Auto Club Speedway. Running fourth on the final lap, Earnhardt Jr. took advantage of the melee in turns three and four to cross the finish line behind winner Kyle Busch.
“I was running around the bottom of the corner and they [Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin] were slowing up and battling real hard, I was just trying to get what I could get,” said Earnhardt Jr. afterwards.
“I felt like down the back straightaway Kyle [Busch] had the best shot at winning the race because those other two guys were slowing down running so hard. Just lucky we were able to get by on the inside.”
Logano and Hamlin were battling for the lead heading into turns three and four before the two made contact. Busch slid by for the win as Logano hit the wall and Hamlin spun down into the inside wall. Earnhardt Jr., who was afraid he was going to get collected into the mess, was able to miss them both.
“We had a good car all day and sort of got off sequence and all screwed up on tire strategy there at the end with all the cautions and guys coming for four and two. We were able to take advantage of that on the last caution, get four tires,” he said.
“Starting on the inside was terrible I would lose five, six spots down there trying to get going on the inside. Finally that restart we started 18th but we were outside and we were ninth by the time we came back around for the first lap under green, so really important to get that outside restart and we weren’t getting it there at the end, so we were just going backwards.”
Starting the day 18th, Earnhardt Jr. found himself in a battle with his racecar. While in traffic it never handled to his liking but crew chief Steve Letarte quickly got the No. 88 National Guard Chevrolet into contention by lap 50.
His stint in the top 10 lasted for much of the 400-mile event, until a pit stop with less than 85 laps to go took him from third to 22nd. But the driver quickly told team to shake it off; it was just a blimp on the radar. Instead of giving the pit crew a chance to get it back for him, Earnhardt Jr. drove back to 10th in four laps following the restart.
“We just stick together and everybody just kind of patted each other on the back and we were going to get another chance to redeem ourselves on pit road. We had a good car on that next restart we drove back up to tenth before the next caution,” he said.
“I felt like we were back up in position to run well and everything was fine, we got a good pit stop on the next caution and put that mistake behind us.”
But the struggles then continued for Earnhardt Jr. as he had trouble passing late in the race. Finding himself back in traffic, struggling on two tires and falling to 24th before a rash of late cautions again allowed Letarte and the team to make the necessary changes.
The final restart allowed Earnhardt Jr. to drive to fourth before the seas parted in the final corner on the final lap.
When all was said and done, Earnhardt Jr. said he was pleased with the finish because he felt he had a top five car. When the NSCS gets back on track at Martinsville in two weeks, he’ll hold a 12-point lead on defending champion Brad Keselowski. He’s the only driver to start the season with top 10 finishes in all five races.
While he has yet to win at the paperclip, Martinsville has been a great track to Earnhardt Jr. over the years, including a third-place finish last spring. It makes the most popular driver content with how his season has started, the performance of his team, and the position he’s in heading forward.
“Yeah, we just stick together, we’re pretty good at closing races something I never really was good at for years,” noted Earnhardt Jr.
“Now we’re doing it as good as anybody, just riding the wave. Just real happy with how things are going with our team.”