Damaged car, missed opportunities drop Earnhardt Jr. in standings
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MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- An unsatisfying eighth-place finish and a torn-up No. 88 topped a crazy-eights type of Sunday for Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Martinsville Speedway.
Earnhardt, hoping to shift the momentum in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoffs, instead left the series' smallest track one place lower in the standings with three races left on the schedule.
"We had a pretty decent car but just didn't do everything exactly like we needed to," Earnhardt said. "We had a pretty good car, though, maybe a fifth-place car. This tire was a struggle for us last year and the last time we were here, and we feel like we made a lot of good gains on it in practice and found some good speed. I don't know what we've got to do to get that extra bit."
Earnhardt spent a portion of his day in the top five, but failed to make headway on the lead pair of Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson or Joe Gibbs Racing's Matt Kenseth, who emerged in a tie atop the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings. Sunday, he slipped four points further from the series lead, staring down a 56-point deficit as the series turns to the next race at Texas Motor Speedway.
Just shy of the halfway mark of Sunday's Goody's Headache Relief Shot 500 Powered by Kroger, Earnhardt was on the fringes of the top 10 in a battle with Greg Biffle, who later verbally sparred with Johnson after close-quarters contact. Earnhardt's run-in with Biffle severely crumpled the right-front corner of the No. 88 Chevy, while the No. 16 Ford of Biffle spent nearly the next 125 laps with a dangling rear bumper cover.
From there, Earnhardt rallied from a shuffle of differing pit cycles to his eventual finishing position, failing to gain much ground on the tight, tricky layout where the degree of difficulty on passing has an extraordinarily high ceiling.
"I mean, it's hard to pass," Earnhardt said. "If you can't drive under 'em, you can't drive under 'em. You saw everybody try to get to the bottom on the restarts because the bottom line is so much better than the middle. Trust me, if guys could drive up under people, they would. Everybody's got the same race cars and running the same speed. All these teams are so competitive, you get 35 cars out there running within a tenth of each other, you're not going to have a lot of side by side. I don't care where you're running at."
Teammate Jeff Gordon celebrated in Victory Lane for the first time this season and fellow Hendrick driver Johnson left Martinsville with a share of the points lead. Still, fresh from the car and needing more than a top-10, Earnhardt found it hard to take solace in the team's overall good fortune.
"I'd rather win the race," Earnhardt said. "I've missed a lot of opportunities to win here, and we finish all right and we run all right. I'm really happy for my teammates when they do well, but right now we're just worried about ourselves. We've got two, three races to go and we want to get as many points as we can."