He still hasn’t won a race but for the first time in three years Dale Earnhardt Jr. has ended a streak, he’s back in the Chase for the Championship.
Saturday night in Richmond the No. 88 AMP Energy / National Guard team battle back from a lap eight accident they were collected in to officially secure their spot. Going down a lap on multiple occasions and making over 10 pit stops, Earnhardt Jr. and company brought home a racecar that looked as though it went 10 rounds at Martinsville to a 16th place finish.
[media-credit name=”Ted Seminara” align=”alignright” width=”225″][/media-credit]“We had a pretty good year,” Earnhardt Jr. said afterwards. “Tonight didn’t start off too good. We got in a little bit of a crash there. The 33 [Clint Bowyer] spun out early and I think everybody back there behind him was alerted of the accident except for one or two guys and they come through there and drove a few of us into it.”
Earnhardt Jr. hit Bowyer square with his nose, severely damaging his Chevy. Afraid of lifting the hood in case it wouldn’t shut, the team decided to work around the damage by pulling out and taping what they could. The car ran fine for about ten laps Earnhardt Jr. said before the right front tire started showing wear and tear.
“We got lucky, got the lucky dog a bunch and ended up finishing [16th] somehow” said Earnhardt Jr. “I was disappointed we didn’t get to show how good a car we had because I thought we had a good one yesterday in practice and it’s all over with now. We’ll just see how we can do in the Chase.”
Dropping to 10th in points, Earnhardt Jr. will stay seeded there as the Chase starts next week in Chicago. When it does all the positive energy and confidence he had when his team was running top five in points earlier this season will be back. Making the Chase was something Earnhardt Jr. has felt his team was capable of doing all year long and there’s enough relief to go around that he has.
“’I’m proud to be in the Chase,” he said. “I feel like I’m a good enough driver to be in the Chase, my team is good enough to be there. As a group I think we’re good enough to be in the top 10, and I can look back over the season and just as easily think of several instances where we cost ourselves 10 or 15 points and made this situation difficult this weekend. But we’re a good team and I’m proud to carry my sponsors and HMS in the Chase and represent them in the Chase and hopefully we’re going to work real hard. Hopefully we do a good job.”
A good job much like Saturday when the 88 team refused to go down easily. Steve Letarte led the team with his calm, cheerleading attitude and made sure they had a plan. Every chance they got the car was repaired and adjustments were made as they worked their way through the field. While Junior Nation sat on the edge of their seats for 400 laps, Earnhardt Jr. never blinked.
“No, I wasn’t worried at all,” he said. “I had seen racecars run good at short tracks before and I figured we had all night to fix it. I felt like if we were a good enough team, we’d get the job done. Brad had to run his ass off to win the race, to run in the top five to make it tough on us. He almost did that, but I felt good. I knew my team could fix the car good enough and if everything fell the right way for us as far as cautions and getting them lucky dogs, getting an opportunity to work on the car, we’d be fine.”
The final 100 laps it became easier to breathe. Earnhardt Jr. climbed into the top 20 where he needed to finish to clinch his Chase spot, regardless of what his competitors did. Now in, Earnhardt Jr. can start thinking about the future.
“We’ve got to turn a different setup than what we ran tonight and in the last six weeks frankly,” he said about the Chase. “But we had a pretty good run at it going the first 15 races and for whatever reason we sort of fell off and forgot some things or over-engineered something. But we need to look hard at what we’re doing, what we’ve been doing.”
Earnhardt Jr. would like to go back to running how he did in those first 15 races. He was third in points for many weeks and was coming ever so close to finding victory lane before things started going downhill entering the summer. Now though, all Chase drivers will start with a fresh slate.
“Steve has told me he’s been kind of conservative,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “But we’ve been conservative on the motor and a couple of other things the last several weeks to make sure we don’t have any problems like engine failure and there’s some other things on the engineer’s side. We’ll just see. I don’t think any of that stuff is really going to make us faster but we’ll go in there with a good attitude.”
Right now though, life is good in the Earnhardt camp. He’s back in the Chase, he’s confident and he’s ready to go forward.
“I’m in the Chase and I’ve got an opportunity to run for the championship,” he said late Saturday night. “I’ve got an opportunity to compete and improve my points position and improve the overall payout. I’ve still got a race to run … I think it does validate our team. I think it says a lot about our team and I’ve always felt like this team was good enough to be in the top 10 and I feel like tonight, we almost gave it away. We got outrun all year long several different times but we almost gave it away a few times too. So, I’m proud of what we’ve been able to do all year.”