Earnhardt on solid ground entering AdvoCare 500
August 31, 2013, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com
Related: Lineup for AdvoCare 500 | Sprint Cup standings
HAMPTON, Ga. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. hasn’t clinched a spot in this year’s NASCAR Chase For The Sprint Cup, but the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ most popular driver is on much more solid ground today.
He found his footing at Bristol, curtailing the freefalls of Watkins Glen and Michigan where 30th- and 36th-place finishes threatened to pull the Hendrick Motorsports driver completely out of the Chase picture.
Heading into Sunday night's AdvoCare 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), Earnhardt Jr., 38, says he feels much better about his team’s chances entering this year’s postseason.
“I was real nervous going into Bristol,” he said Friday at AMS. “A bullring like that with only 20 points from 11th (place) was a bit difficult on our nerves.
“We didn’t really get to race as aggressively as we’d like to, but we still had a good night, a good car and drove a smart race.”
His 10th-place finish on the high-banked half-mile track in Tennessee expanded the gap from 20 to 33 points between himself and 11th place, a position held by defending series champion Brad Keselowski. A bit of breathing room as he seeks to make his sixth Chase appearance.
His goal is to exit Atlanta no worse than his current situation, better if possible.
“I don’t really have a set number (of points in mind),” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Thirty-three is good. … I don’t want to lose any spots. I don’t want to fall to eighth. I don’t want to fall to ninth. I don’t want to be 10th. I want to be seventh or better. We don’t want to go into the Chase sputtering and just making it by the skin of our teeth at all.”
A 19-time winner in Cup, Earnhardt Jr. hasn’t won a Cup race since June of 2012 at Michigan International Speedway. He will start eighth in Sunday's race, second-best among the four Hendrick Motorsports drivers.
The team, headed up by crew chief Steve Letarte, avoided a potential setback at Bristol, pitting for fuel with only 50 laps remaining in the 500-lap race. The call to guarantee gas wouldn’t be an issue came with a price -- Earnhardt Jr. went from fifth to 15th with the stop. He made up five spots in the final 50 laps.
It was the correct call, he said, even though the team discovered afterward that “we were a gallon of gas to the good.”
“That eats away at you, because you know you had a chance to run a little bit better,” he said. “But me and Steve understand … realistically we gave away two points, three points. We would have started on the inside right behind Jeff (Gordon) and on the inside was not the way to go. He got trained on the outside by a bunch of guys andfinished seventh. So we’d have been somewhere around where he was and finished maybe eighth or ninth.
“At the time it was bothering me and I was real nervous inside the car; if we had run out we’d have been fools and made a lot of people upset, including ourselves.
“It would have been really difficult. It was something we had to do. Under the circumstances, it was adecision we had to make.”
Atlanta, where he has one career win (the March 2004 race) in 25 Cup starts, has been one of Earnhardt Jr.’s better tracks. His average finish of 12.5 is second only to Bristol. He finished seventh in last year’s race here.