News & Media

Rodman: No qualifications necessary for Earnhardt

June 06, 2011, Dave Rodman,

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Earnhardt pre-emptively apologetic for second place, focuses on starting spots

For the second week in a row, fuel mileage bit Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the last lap of a Sprint Cup Series race.

But the best news for the Hendrick Motorsports driver, who moved into third in the championship battle with his runner-up finish in Sunday's STP 400 at Kansas Speedway, was that his No. 88 Chevrolet's tank ran dry at the start/finish line and not halfway through the last, 1.5-mile lap.

"We need to start in the top 10 so we ain't gotta work the first three quarters of the race trying to get within sight of it, that's about it."


So amazingly enough, Earnhardt came to the infield media center -- hot, sweaty and grimy -- apologetic, of all things, for his performance. He softened up when he was asked why he didn't sound happier about his comeback from nearly spinning out once.

"You're right -- and when I get home by myself that's how I'll feel about it. But in the grand scheme of things I've got a lot of people that are...there's a lot of people who will remind you throughout this sport of how fortunate you were and how lucky you were and all those things.

"So I like to beat them to the punch and let them know I realize how fortunate I was [Sunday] to get second place. Track position [was my biggest obstacle]. I had a good car, just started way back there in the back, man -- and it's so hard to pass here. And so starting where we did, it just wasn't easy. We need to fix that, somehow."

Actually, he felt worse about the fact he'd brought out the race's penultimate caution, at lap 154, when he performed a smoky half-spin that ended up inside Turn 4.

"I spun out up there tryin' to find a little more speed on the top," Earnhardt said. "Just real loose, which I liked. It was hot and slick and that is the way I like it. Just trying to get a little too much there and lost track position.

"We had a good car, though. It was fast all day. We shouldn't have run second again. We've got to fix some things. We've got fast cars so we can be fast."

And actually that, more than anything else, was truly the most pleasant aspect of Sunday. Because when Earnhardt raced for a number of laps, all-out trying to catch and then successfully pass Denny Hamlin to the inside for second on lap 257, both men thought victory was at stake.

And for Earnhardt and Hamlin -- perhaps more than any other drivers in the Cup garage -- a victory any time soon would be terrifically significant. Earnhardt's longest losing streak of his career reached 106 races Sunday; Hamlin, after finishing second in the Chase last season, is yet to win this year.

"It was fun racing Denny, I don't get to race him too much," Earnhardt said, brightening considerably when it was pointed out he'd actually out-raced someone with as much at stake as he had, in the big picture. "Yes, that's a good point. I was told that that was the race for the win. And I genuinely believed what Steve [Letarte, crew chief] was telling me, because I didn't think the 2 would make it. But he saved a lot of gas. He did a great job.

"[But] I was faster than Denny the last 100 laps of the race. There was a stretch where I could tell I was running him down. I would see more and more of them as the run went on, so we had a great car."

Starting struggles

Earnhardt's troubles
Las Vegas338
Fort Worth289

That's what will make for a lot more pleasant day for Earnhardt and Hendrick fans as the summer continues.

Where that comes from gives you the tiniest glimpse into the depths of the guy who just wants to race, and race well, before he's allowed to retreat into his own space for a few precious hours.

That's what he was looking forward to Monday.

"It'll probably be tomorrow [before he recovers from the day racing in the heat]," Earnhardt said. "I want to lay by the pool and drink some vodka or whatever. I'll probably chug a lot of water [Sunday] night so I'm hydrated for [Monday]."

Other than his rehabilitation program, probably the coolest thing is that Junior's heading toward his first Chase in three years on merit, pure and simple. And when he and his team do win -- and that day is coming soon -- it will be a bonus not only to Junior, Hendrick and their thousands of fans -- but to all of NASCAR.

But that qualifying performance has got to change, and Earnhardt knows it. Outside of Daytona, where he won the pole, and Talladega, the 88 has only qualified better than 22nd once -- a third at Dover.

"That's terrible," Earnhardt said. "Terrible. But everything's out of control when I go drive it. When I race, I'm fine. We just gotta figure out what we need to do. It can't be that hard. We need to start in the top 10 so we ain't gotta work the first three quarters of the race trying to get within sight of it, that's about it."

The way this season's gone so far, the bet is that'll come a little sooner than later. Otherwise, Earnhardt's already proven good at apologizing.

"I don't know, man," Earnhardt said. "Every time I always thought I could do better or the problem was me, we'll go down the road somewhere, flip the switch on the car, do something to the car that gives you what you need, and you're like 'damn, it wasn't me.'

"But I qualified good last year some, which we've been terrible this year."

But his racing's made up for it, even if circumstance like fuel mileage gambles haven't. That's OK with him.

"No, I can wait [for a non-fuel-mileage victory]," Earnhardt said. "I might."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.