Hendrick Motorsports driver thankful to be a part of sport for so long
CONCORD, N.C. – So what did Dale Earnhardt Jr. do for his 39th birthday?
For starters, the Hendrick Motorsports driver qualified sixth for Saturday night's Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
"It's been great," Earnhardt Jr., who turned 39 Thursday, said when asked about turning another year older. "Getting older is not awesome, but it's all how you feel, I suppose. I feel 20. I feel good."
Earnhardt Jr., the 37th of 43 drivers to take to the track during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series qualifying session, briefly sat second after his lap of 195.535 mph, trailing only teammate Kasey Kahne.
But Greg Biffle, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and eventually pole winner Jeff Gordon proved faster, leaving Earnhardt Jr. just outside the top five.
"The car was really driving well," he said, adding the No. 88 Chevrolet "is just right where we need to be.
"It's been good all daylong. I think we're going to have a good race car this weekend. That (run) gives us a great starting spot and a great pit selection."
Earnhardt Jr. will be making his 500th career start on Saturday night, ninth most among active Cup drivers and 33rd overall. He is a 19-time race winner, but is 0-for-27 in Cup starts at the 1.5-mile track. He does have one non-points win here, capturing the 2000 All-Star race during his rookie season.
Start No. 500 isn't, he said, "that big of a milestone to me. I just hope I'm around for at least 250 or 500 more.
"I’ve really been blessed to have the opportunity to do what I do. I feel thankful every weekend to be able to get in some of the best cars in the series. I really mean that from my heart.
"It’s truly been a dream career for me and I never took it for granted that I would be driving race cars all my life and be able to make a living doing it. I’m real thankful and it makes me reflect on that kind of thing.”
One of 13 drivers in this year's Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field, Earnhardt Jr. enters this weekend's race eighth in points and 54 behind leader Matt Kenseth. After a horrendous 35th-place finish in the opening Chase race at Chicago, he has posted three consecutive top-10 finishes, including a runner-up effort at Dover two weeks ago.
The Charlotte race marks the halfway point of the 10-race Chase.
While teams had only one practice session prior to qualifying on Thursday, Earnhardt Jr. said his car had speed from the time it was unloaded. Small gains on Friday would help him keep pace with those who were also fast a day earlier.
"We ran a couple of (race) runs early and thought that we had a good handle," he said. "We were really in the ballpark and really happy with how the car came off the trailer."
And that, he said, "is a good sign for us.”