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Power outage dims Earnhardt's hopes in Texas

April 14, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Confusion, bad timing over dead battery causes No. 88 team to lose five laps

FORT WORTH, Texas -- One second.

That’s how much time Dale Earnhardt Jr. estimates he would have lost had he realized immediately that an electrical problem seizing his No. 88 car Saturday night at Texas Motor Speedway was due to a dead battery. Instead, confusion and bad timing combined to spark a crisis that cost Earnhardt five laps on the race track, and produce another difficult finish for the former Sprint Cup points leader.

“Got no power!” Earnhardt reported while running third on the 1.5-mile track where he earned his first victory on NASCAR’s premier series 13 years ago. Entering Turns 1 and 2, his dashboard gauges went red and his tachometer went haywire. Going into Turn 3, his engine cut off completely. With pit road approaching, he was forced to make a snap decision -- so he pulled off the race track, rather than risk stalling out on it.

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“Things break on these cars, and you don’t know right away what it is,” Earnhardt said after the race. “It’s real easy to have hindsight and say man, that’s pretty simple. But when the motor quits running, you don’t really know why. You have to diagnose it, and it took us more than a few seconds. I couldn’t coast past pit road, because if it was something we couldn’t fix on the car, we were going to be stalled on the track and lose a ton of laps that way anyway.”

As soon as Earnhardt reached his pit stall, though, the problem was evident -- his battery had gone dead, the result of an alternator that was acting up. For drivers, changing over to a backup battery is a fairly simple task that involves throwing a switch inside the car. But with his dashboard gauges dark, he didn’t have much information to work with, and the approaching pit road elevated the urgency of the situation.

“I don’t know what else we could have done different aside from me understanding better what was going on with the car, and diagnosing it on the race track and switching to the second battery and not losing any laps. That was just my mistake,” Earnhardt said.

“All the gauges went bad. All the gauges just went haywire, and so I couldn’t read the gauges to diagnose what was happening. But once you start to think about it, you’re like, well, if all the gauges are going bad, we’ve got an electrical issue. Then you go right to the battery.”

Which the No. 88 team quickly did once Earnhardt arrived at his pit stall. The switch was thrown and the car restarted, but the problems were just beginning. Because his engine had quit, Earnhardt couldn’t read his tachometer, so he sped entering pit road and was ordered by NASCAR to serve a pass-through penalty. Crew chief Steve Letarte opted to use the extra trip to take fresh tires, with one problem -- by rule, he couldn’t.

That meant the No. 88 car had to come down pit road a third time. By the time the saga had ended, Earnhardt was five laps down and in 35th place. He finished 29th, and dropped three positions to sixth in the standings.

Earnhardt said he was aware of the rule prohibiting cars from being serviced while serving a penalty. But he didn’t blame his crew chief, saying they probably would have had to make an extra trip for fresh rubber anyway, given they were nearing the outer limit of their pit window.

“I thought we were probably better off getting tires anyway,” Earnhardt said. “We’d probably serve the penalty and then think about it, go ahead, come on and get tires and try to cycle, because we were about 15 laps away anyway.  … I don’t know how it would have worked out, but I was pretty aware of that penalty. I’ve had a few of these speeding on pit road.”

It all added up to a second straight rough week for Earnhardt, who was the only driver to finish in the top 10 in each of the season’s first five races, and led the Sprint Cup standings entering the short-track event last week at Martinsville. But there his track bar came loose and made the car tighter as the event went on, and played a role in contact with Danica Patrick that led to a 24th-place result.

“It has been rough, but we had a real good car tonight,” Earnhardt said. “If we’re running bad and having these kinds of nights, we could have a hard time making that Chase (for the Sprint Cup). But running good, things will turn back around for us.  We’ll get going. We’ve got a lot of confidence and a lot of positive attitude, and I feel like we’ll have no problem rebounding.”

Even so, it had to be difficult to know that flipping one switch might have prevented the problem -- although the faulty alternator would likely have forced the No. 88 in for an eventual battery change. But that result would have been preferable to finishing five laps down.

“Switch the battery, we’re good,” Earnhardt said. “We probably would have ended up putting a battery in it, because we burned down the second battery. We’d have probably had to go to the back of the lead lap at some point in the race and give up a ton of track position to fix that second battery. But we still would have finished in the top 20 rather easily.”

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