Patience doesn't pay off for Earnhardt Jr.
October 20, 2013, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Patience didn't pay off for Dale Earnhardt Jr. during Sunday's Camping World RV Sales 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.
The Hendrick Motorsports driver led eight times for 38 laps, finished second and made the biggest points move among those in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
But his shot at snapping a 51-race winless streak eluded his grasp when Austin Dillon crashed dramatically on the final lap of the 188-lap event.
"I had no reason to make a move before the last lap, being in second place," Earnhardt Jr., who shadowed leader Jamie McMurray for the final dozen laps. "I was in perfect position to be patient and wait as long as I wanted to.
"So that's why we didn't go any sooner than that. I just can't anticipate a caution coming out every single time we run a Talladega race on the last lap, so I just assumed it would go to checkered and was planning my move on the back straightaway."
With the front 15 or so cars streaking single file down the back straightway for the final time, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., running fourth, made a move to the inside of third-place Dillon. When Dillon moved to block, Stenhouse "tried to get back to the top," he said, but got into the Stewart-Haas Racing entry instead.
The contact turned Dillon's car, sending it toward the outside wall. Casey Mears, running behind the incident, was caught up in the fray.
Officials threw the yellow, effectively ending the race and nixing Earnhardt Jr.'s attempt at a last-lap pass for the win.
"We sort of let the 1 car (of McMurray) get out there a little bit going down the front straightaway into Turn 1," Earnhardt Jr. said, "and we mashed the gas in the middle of the corner and got a run with the 14 (of Dillon).
"I was moving around just a little bit to see where the 1 thought I might be going, because I've got to sort of fake him out. I noticed the run stopped, I looked in the mirror and guys were out of control."
It wasn't "the best run in the world," he said, but added that it was good enough to give him a shot at getting alongside McMurray, the eventual race winner. "And then we would have found out who our friends were at that point."
Crew chief Steve Letarte said he had no issues with NASCAR officials throwing the yellow although "I would have loved to have seen the other half lap.
"I completely understand why the caution came out," he said. "I think NASCAR has been extremely consistent with that. If (Dillon) hadn't hit anything, they probably would have let us race back; as soon as the 14 makes contact with that wall, they did the right thing. We all know that going in, but I still think you have to wait until the last lap to make the move."
He was surprised, he said, that guys closer to the front didn't drop out of line sooner. Drivers deeper in the field had tried such a move a bit earlier, but "I was scanning a few of them back there," Letarte said, "and they were very upset that people wouldn't drop out (of line) with them. So I knew there was enough frustration; it didn't look like they were getting organized.
"Once we hit two to go, I figured the run was going to have to come from the top five or six -- any of those guys could do it. They were really patient for that lap.
His driver had a plan, he said.
"It looked like he was backing them up in (turns) one and two, getting ready to get a great run. You never know. You never know if it's going to be enough. It's easy to say it could have been, maybe we'll say that and it makes for a better story. But I would have loved to have seen that other half lap."
While he had perhaps one of his best restrictor-plate cars in quite some time, a final green-flag pit stop had dropped Earnhardt Jr. from the lead to outside the top 10. With his spotter and crew chief preaching patience, the green and white No. 88 slowly began making its way back toward the front.
"We got shuffled out there on that last run when we came out of the pits. I thought we pitted a little bit early; gave up a lot of time," he said. "I felt like if we could stay out … we had a better shot at coming out in front of those guys. We ended up coming out behind a bunch of people."
Letarte said the stop was a little slower, but the way the cars cycled back out onto the track "was normal Talladega."
"I put in fuel in for a green-white-checkered finish as well," Letarte said, "and a lot of guys didn't. So I had a plan. I've been on the other end of those -- I ran out once with Jeff (Gordon) back there under yellow. That was no good."
The runner-up finish to McMurray was enough to push Earnhardt Jr. up three positions in the points battle. He'll head to Martinsville Speedway for next week's race sixth, 52 points behind new leader and teammate Jimmie Johnson.
"I'm not going to complain too much, because I'm driving some of the best cars in the garage and I've got some of the best engines being at a place like that," he said. "It really means a lot.
"It's frustrating because the worst part about it is you go home and you'll spend months thinking about what you could have done to not be second.
"Actually the process of it happening and doing it isn't that bad. You're kind of happy with being competitive and it was a good result. But you'll go back and think of a million things you could have tried (to do) different."