News & Media

Penalty denies Earnhardt strong Darlington finish

May 09, 2011, David Caraviello,

DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. has always had something of a difficult relationship with Darlington Raceway, a track he's warmed to mildly with the benefits of time and experience. He once joked in an interview that the old, abrasive surface that existed before the facility's 2008 repaving was made of crushed seashells, and would cut your hand if you brushed against it.

NASCAR's most popular driver came to the aged facility this weekend without a top-10 finish here since 2008. "This place is pretty intimidating," he said prior to Saturday night's event, "and you don't ever take it for granted that you're going to run well." And yet, that's exactly what Earnhardt did for much of the Showtime Southern 500, when he ran among the leaders in the latter stages of the event, and seemed poised for a strong finish -- until he hit not another car, but an orange cone.

"It was another week where we've been able to put the car inside the top 10, and we just need to start capitalizing like we were at the very start of the season, on getting the finishes we deserve and stop making so many mistakes. I think we can do that."


Often overlooked when discussing Darlington's degree of difficulty is its pit road entrance, which forces drivers to make an abrupt left on a track that's faster than most others of its size. And Saturday, it wasn't Darlington's narrow straightaways that got Earnhardt, or its corners where drivers run right up near the wall. It was that pit entrance which befuddled a number of drivers, including Earnhardt with 38 laps remaining when he turned down too late and ran over the orange commitment cone.

The penalty was a pass-through, which knocked Earnhardt from sixth place to a lap down, and sent him to an eventual 14th-place finish. Like the week prior at Richmond, when a backfiring pit decision led to a 19th-place result, it was another effort where the No. 88 car was fast enough to finish in the top 10, but wasn't able to stay there.

"I made a mistake getting onto pit road, and just choked trying to make that last pit stop, and that cost us about eight spots, probably," Earnhardt said. "We did run a good race and worked really hard to get up to inside the top 10. It was another week where we've been able to put the car inside the top 10, and we just need to start capitalizing like we were at the very start of the season, on getting the finishes we deserve and stop making so many mistakes. I think we can do that. I think the confidence is coming more and more each week about the speed we've had."

Earnhardt wasn't the only driver to have trouble with the pit road entrance. A few missed it, and Matt Kenseth also incurred a pass-through penalty for entering above the commitment line. Earnhardt almost made it, striking the cone with the front end of his Chevrolet. "I pitted earlier and had no problem," he said, "and I was just trying to get a little too much there. I barely hit that cone, and that's all it took."

Other teams had their pit issues at Darlington as well. Paul Menard nearly ran over one of his crewmen, lurching forward and then jerking to a stop while a member of his over-the-wall team was servicing the front grille. Jimmie Johnson, who wound up 15th, had to make an unscheduled stop after lug nuts were left loose late in the race. A vibration from a loose wheel forced Kyle Busch to make an extra stop that put him a lap down -- he recovered to run as high as seventh before a late run-in with Kevin Harvick left him 11th. Kurt Busch was penalized a lap for pulling up to pit, or passing the pace car while trying to enter pit road.

It was part of a frustrating weekend for the elder Busch, who ripped into his team during last week's event at Richmond, but this week turned the radio off to vent to himself. A wreck in practice Friday forced him to a backup, he scratched up his No. 22 car early in the race, and finished a season-worst 31st.

"We may have sealed our fate when we cut a tire in practice and put our primary car in the Turn 1 wall," Kurt said. "We were super tight with the back-up car to start the race, and we never could loosen the car up. We threw everything at it -- track bar, wedge, shims, you name it, [crew chief] Steve [Addington] tried it. This place is tough enough with a good race car. When your setup is off, it's just a nightmare."

Earnhardt's car was much more competitive, and before the penalty seemed bound for his best Darlington finish in years. The solace is that he remained a solid fourth in points heading into next week's event at Dover.

"We were about a sixth-place car, and I think a legitimate contender there for that position, and it would have been nice to have gotten that position," Earnhardt said. "We gave up 10 points [Saturday night], so it was kind of tough."