Junior discusses Brickyard race strategy
July 26, 2014, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com
SPEEDWAY, Ind. -- With two wins under his belt, 13 top-10 finishes and a second-place position in the points standings, it might seem as if Dale Earnhardt Jr. is primed for his best shot at a victory here at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
But the Hendrick Motorsports driver, speaking to the media following Saturday's final practice session at the 2.5-mile track, said that isn't the case.
"I think I've had some pretty good cars here in the past," said Earnhardt Jr., who will be making his 15th career start at the legendary track. "I've had chances to win in the past and didn't even know it.
"I think the first time we came here, we ran in the top three for the first half of the race. We just didn’t anticipate -- didn't realize -- the potential we had."
Instead, he finished 13th. That was back in 2000. Since then, he's finished better (he was fourth in '12 and sixth last year), and he's finished worse (in '05, he was credited with a 43rd-place finish after getting punted on a restart).
While often compared to Pocono -- where Earnhardt Jr. won last month -- because of its size and relatively flat layout, Earnhardt says it requires a road-course mentality when formulating a game plan at Indy.
"You've got to kind of pit the car like a road course," he said. "The left-side tries are very, very hard, so we probably won't change (them) that much. We need to sort of plan our strategy to where we are on pit road the least amount of time on that last stop … your strategy may be more geared toward what you do at a road course where you go ahead and get inside the (fuel) window and get on pit road … get your pit work done and then be done for the rest of the race … try to be the guy that's out front at the end when everybody else comes on down pit road to get their stuff done.”
His point, he said, "is we've had good cars in the past and just didn't do the strategy just right. Somebody did it better than us or somebody made it on fuel and won the race or what have you. But we’ve had some good cars here."
Matt Kenseth (Joe Gibbs Racing) and Jimmie Johnson (Hendrick) were fastest in the two practice sessions here this weekend as teams made preparations for Sunday's Crown Royal Presents, the John Wayne Walding 400 at the Brickyard (Sunday, 1 pm. ET, ESPN). Earnhardt Jr. was 24th in the opening session and fifth fastest during an abbreviated final practice.
"I think the car is pretty good, it's just real easy to overdrive the car here," he said. "We made a run and it was great, and then the next couple of runs I over-drove the car and we weren't great, so (I've) just got to try to be patient with the throttle and try not to push the car into the corner and get the … front tires sliding too much.
"If you're just a little bit tight, you add all that up all the way around the lap and that's a lot of time. You make one little mistake on the straightaways -- they're so long here -- and you can't recover until you get to the next corner. It's costly here if you over-drive the corners."
Patience will be the key, he said, and his patience will be put to the test after qualifying 23rd.
"This morning, we went out and the track was perfect," Earnhardt Jr. said after failing to advance out of the second knockout qualifying session. "That's why we ran such a good lap. When we run on a track like we got right now, we're just not as fast as we need to be. Cars real, real tight and slow.
"Haven't been real happy all weekend. Qualifying's been a problem lately, especially the last couple months for us so just real frustrated, man. We've got to run better than this. We've got to figure out what's going on, and we've got to run better than this. It's getting really frustrating with not turning."
• Earnhardt Jr. said talk about who will replace departing crew chief Steve Letarte continues, but to date there's been no "real serious discussion about it.
"But I think the people involved in the decision-making have some great ideas, and the conversations are starting to happen, so we’ll see how that sort of works itself out," he said.
Letarte announced in January that he would be departing at year's end to take a race analyst role with NBC Sports when the network begins its NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race coverage in 2015.
The two have won three races together, including this year's Daytona 500.
A Brickyard victory would be special, Earnhardt Jr. said, but so would any victory.
"Any race I win with Steve this year is very special because of (it being) his last year," he said. "So yeah, we’ll take … a win anywhere.
"He's one of … the best on the box when it comes to strategy and this style of race and the way the tires are going to come into play into that, this is right in his wheelhouse.
"I think he's going to give us a great opportunity."