Dale Jr. claims personal victory at Sonoma
June 22, 2014, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
SONOMA, Calif. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. climbed out of his well-used No. 88 Kelley Blue Book Chevy on Sonoma Raceway pit road, surveyed the random dents and "new" paint job, and told a couple of his Hendrick Motorsports crewmen that this third-place finish here actually felt more like a win.
It was Earnhardt's career-best effort on the 1.99-mile road course overlooking Northern California's vineyards and dramatically bettered his previous top finish of 11th. And while Earnhardt humbly credited much of the result to good strategy and fresh tires, it was also one of his more skillful driving exhibitions on a track that most often has befuddled and bewildered him.
"I told (crew chief) Steve (Letarte) I think I figured out what the trick is to being a really, really good crew chief is to call the season like it's your last because his strategy is aggressive and a little bit out of the box, and that pays off in most cases because if you do everything everybody else is doing, you're racing a lot more people trying to do everything else they're doing," Earnhardt said, of his "lame duck" crew chief who is off to the NBC television booth next season.
"When you do something different and get off the pattern pit‑wise, get off the strategy and stuff, it allows you to be a lot more aggressive."
It was a trait Earnhardt used effectively on the track as well. And had to.
Earnhardt started 17th -- none of the Hendrick Motorsports cars advanced beyond the first session of qualifying -- and doggedly made his way through the field -- sometimes participating in the bump-and-bang that has increasingly characterized NASCAR's brand of road racing.
He collided in Turn 7 with one of his good friends, Matt Kenseth, just past the race's midpoint, sending Kenseth's car hard into a tire wall and the former series champ home early and dejected.
"My car had the tires and I was able to drive by those guys at the end, but I had an eventful race, and I tore Matt Kenseth's car up pretty bad jumping that curb," Earnhardt said. "I was racing him a little hard there coming out of Turn 7. He probably had the preferred line and I probably should have yielded to him, but I thought I was a little bit faster than him and didn't want to be stuck behind him.
"I straddled a curb, and it just lost my car in the air right into his car. I hope he's not too sore today."
Kenseth, who like Earnhardt has never won at Sonoma, was obviously frustrated and disappointed, but not angry.
" I knew he (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) was on my right side," Kenseth said. "On the restart we were side-by-side and I got him going into (turn) seven and left him plenty of room when we were racing side-by-side.
"He tapped me on my right rear and wrecked me. I don’t know if he got out of the groove with his car -- I don’t really know what happened and it doesn’t matter at this point. Unfortunately it ended our day.”
Earnhardt also had a little run-in -- literally -- with AJ Allmendinger with a handful of laps remaining. Allmendinger's No. 47 Kingsford Chevy got the worse end of the deal ricocheting off cars while the front-running group raced hard out of the track's famed hairpin turn.
"We led a lot of laps today and we were good enough to win the thing no doubt," said Allmendinger, who led a race best 35 of the 110 laps. "It's just disappointing the way our day ended and to leave Sonoma with a car that's tore up."
Earnhardt saw the incident as just a typical racing situation.
"He wheel-hopped my left rear tire and that spun him out. Other than that we beat and banged a little bit, everything that you normally see here.
"I had a lot of fun other than the deal with Matt made me pretty sick. But other than that it was a fun day."
Beyond the usual mea culpa and explanations, Earnhardt will surely feel more good than woeful about his afternoon.
He answered more critics than he created.
"Aside from holding a trophy, this is like a win for us," Earnhardt said. "We came in here and knew we had a good car throughout practice. I've been in the top-10 in a lot of these races with two or three laps to go but we've just never been able to finish.
"So to be clear of the mess and just have an advantage with the tires at the end, there was a lot of confidence. Knowing we were going to be able to wrap it up or feel like we were in good position to wrap it up felt really good."
On his way to the airport from the race track, Earnhardt posted this on his Twitter account: ".@DaleJr ran 3rd @sonoma. Said no one ever. Till today. Proud of the #88 team. Great car. Great effort. Cold one in my future."
And well deserved.