For Junior at his best, top-10 is no longer good enough
July 14, 2014, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com
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LOUDON, N.H. -- It was "the hardest I've ever worked for a 10th-place finish," said the driver who had just finished 10th for the 21st time in his career.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who first placed 10th in his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start at Richmond back in 1999, likely meant Sunday's 10th-place finish was a lot of hard work with a semi-acceptable result at the end of a long day.
It's doubtful, although possible, that his 10th-place finish in the Camping World RV Sales 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway was indeed the hardest-earned of his career. It was labor intensive, to be sure, with a late caution tightening up the field for one last charge, guys running out of gas before the restart and guys running out of gas after the restart.
Inside the top 10 with less than 25 laps remaining, the Hendrick Motorsports driver and his No. 88 team were one of a handful hoping track position would play in their favor and provide a shot at the win.
It didn't pan out, for the most part because Team Penske driver Brad Keselowski had the field covered for just about the entire afternoon.
Keselowski continued to work his way to the front after pit stops dropped him back in the field. Few others, including Earnhardt, were able to accomplish similar feats.
"It was real disappointing not to have the speed a lot of those other guys had," Earnhardt, twice a winner this season, said. "(Keselowski) and the (Joe) Gibbs (Racing) guys, they were all real fast. Hats off to them, because they surely got their cars figured out. It's just real frustrating all day long to be playing second fiddle."
Second in points, Earnhardt clinched at least a top-30 points spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. With multiple wins, he's one of at least three Hendrick Motorsports drivers expected to be in the 16-team Chase field -- along with Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon -- while teammate Kasey Kahne is winless this year, and currently 17th in points.
"It feels great; it's an accomplishment. I'm proud of our team for that," Earnhardt said. "Hopefully we can improve, though, before we come back here."
The New Hampshire track will host the second Chase race in September, "so we need to run better than this," Earnhardt said.
Crew chief Steve Letarte said based on the previous day’s practice times, “we figured we were about a fifth- to 10th-place (car) … and that's probably about what we had today -- a fifth- to 10th-place car."
The difference, he said, was the late caution that slowed the field with two laps remaining and sent it into overtime. The delay resulted in teammate Gordon running out of gas, which altered the positions for the final restart.
"If he doesn't run out of gas, we restart on the top (lane) and probably run fourth behind the 42 (of Kyle Larson)," Letarte said. "Restarting on the bottom, green-white-checkers, (we) run 10th.
"You can't really look at where anyone finished from about third on back, that's just how restarts go."
Gordon, and a handful of others, gambled and tried to stretch their fuel mileage, bypassing pit road for track position during a caution at Lap 249. Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Paul Menard and Greg Biffle also stayed out.
Letarte said his team considered the option, "but we didn't get very good mileage. We were a long way off. … We wouldn't even have made it to the last caution (at Lap 298).
"The race played out just the way we thought it would; the strategy played out just the way we thought it would," he said. "I think it proves that the 2 (of Keselowski) had a superior car that could get back up to the front. If he hadn't been as dominant, the fuel strategy still wins with the 18 (of Kyle Busch), I think."
Although the Hendrick organization tested at New Hampshire, Sunday's results were less than expected. The strength of the Team Penske camp didn't go unnoticed.
"Absolutely (it's a concern) when someone has that much speed," Letarte said. "But this sport goes through a lot of waves and the Chase is a long way away.
"We'll just keep working on our stuff, figure it out, come back and try to be better."
"We will keep working," he said. "Tenth place? I'm really disappointed, but I remember when we used to like these."