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Dale Jr.'s gambles may continue beyond Vegas

March 14, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Earnhardt Jr. has no regrets; No. 88 team will continue to roll the dice

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BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Just because it was a gamble doesn't mean it didn't hurt. Dale Earnhardt Jr. saw the showgirls and the Victory Lane celebration in the middle of the Neon Garage area, and thought about how much fun it must be to win at Las Vegas. He may have come up short on a fuel-mileage venture last Sunday, but he still came up short. Even the memory of running out of gas off the final turn at Charlotte in 2011 still stings.

"We took a gamble that wasn’t supposed to make it," Earnhardt said, looking back at his runner-up finish a week ago. "I can justify why we didn't win, but to come that close really does disappoint you."

And yet, with a Daytona 500 race victory in his hip pocket and a virtually guaranteed berth in the revamped Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, it seems pretty clear -- despite the hurt, he'd do it all over again. Earnhardt's fuel wager a week ago at Las Vegas, where he ran dry on the backstretch of the final lap and saw Brad Keselowski storm past to win, may have been just the first such gamble by drivers who have punched their tickets to the playoff. Sin City may be in the rearview, but teams are still going to roll the dice.

That's certainly the case for Earnhardt and his No. 88 group, who with a race victory in hand see no need to play it conservatively. For NASCAR's most popular driver, that means another gamble may well be in the offing this weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway, where Earnhardt won in 2004.

"It's definitely going to change the way people do strategy," he said. "We saw that last week. And at the short tracks, it's definitely going to change the way people race each other. At the short tracks when you can get within reach of each other, you're going to definitely be more aggressive in those situations, for sure."

At Bristol, that could mean a few different things. Earnhardt thinks back to his 10th-place finish here last summer, where "we ended up chickening out on the fuel strategy and pitting and giving up all our track position," he said. "With the way things are now, we don’t need to do that. We can go for it, and be aggressive." But it could also mean the return of a once-polarizing Bristol tradition -- the bump-and-run.

Again Earnhardt thinks back to last summer's night race at Bristol, where his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne finished second to Matt Kenseth. Under the current format, he wonders if Kahne may have been more willing to use the front end of his car. "If you’ve got a guy running second within reach of the leader and he needs a win, he’s going to do a little bit more than he probably would have done last year, probably be a little more aggressive," Earnhardt said, "and rightfully so."

The bump-and-run was once as much a Bristol standard as Ridgewood barbecue, with Jeff Gordon and Rusty Wallace engaging in a few memorable duels and Dale Earnhardt the elder famously rattling Terry Labonte's cage. Changes to the race track, not to mention drivers' mentalities, have caused the tactic to fall out of fashion in recent years -- but now? With a handful of drivers able to go for broke because they already have race victories, and everyone else willing to do anything to get them?

"You don’t want to go throw your trash in your neighbor’s yard just for the hell of it, but if you give me a good reason, I might do it," Earnhardt said. "I mean, you want to dump somebody at a race track like this, you’re going to need really good reason to do it. The mentality has changed over the years, and the new system changes that mindset slightly to where if you move a guy out of the way, for lack of a better way to explain it, you can blame the system and move on."

Not everyone is convinced the change in format will bring a change of attitudes toward the bump-and-run. "I don't have any plans to be more violent than I have in the past," Ryan Newman said. "Ultimately, you have to manage your race car and manage your race, and you have to have left something at the end. You can beat on guys, but you’re going to get beat back on."

"If somebody is on your bumper at most of these race tracks, especially these little tracks like Martinsville (and) here, places like that where you can get moved out of the way … you’re always expecting some type of aggressive move," Matt Kenseth added. "I’m not sure how much that will change. These are all big races to win, and everybody is out there racing hard to win. You never know. You never know what the new system, with the rules and format and all that stuff, is going to bring. I think we just kind of wait and see."

With his runner-up finishes at Phoenix and Las Vegas, Earnhardt became the fifth driver in NASCAR's modern era to start the season with three consecutive top-two results. The Sprint Cup Series points leader cautioned, though, that last week's finish was due to strategy -- he would have run between fourth and eighth without it, he said, and never seriously challenged Keselowski for the victory. 

"We can't get too carried away," Earnhardt said. "We were in position to win, but we did that on a strategy that a lot of people weren't willing to take. We're not going to be able to do that every week. We're not going to be able to turn an eighth- or a fifth-place run into a second- or third- or first-place run every week. So we've got to keep in perspective what happened last week. … We definitely can look at that and be excited that we had a chance to win, but also we need to focus more on how to get better so we're running up front regardless of the strategy were running."

That's certainly a possibility at Bristol, a short track the former late model driver at Myrtle Beach Speedway has loved since the beginning, and where he's often performed well. Sunday's race brings another opportunity -- whether by conventional means, or using another strategy move to put himself back in position at the end.

"We've got a shot at it, man," Earnhardt said. "We really run good here. I like coming here. We felt really good about our car last time we were here. … We'll be going for it."

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