News & Media

Aggressive approach pays dividends for Earnhardt

September 20, 2011, David Caraviello,

JOLIET, Ill. -- Driver had grown weary of points racing, reveled in chance to revisit strengths

After racing conservatively to get into the Chase, Dale Earnhardt Jr. said he hoped to have a few more "bullets in the gun" once NASCAR's playoff started. Monday at Chicagoland Speedway, he had one -- in the form of a No. 88 car that helped NASCAR's most popular driver secure one of his best finishes of the season at the best possible time.

Earnhardt placed third in the rain-delayed race on the 1.5-mile track, taking advantage of a number of other drivers who ran dry in a fuel-mileage finish. It was Earnhardt's best result since a runner-up finish in another fuel-mileage race, at Kansas in July. And it helped the last driver to secure a top-10 berth jump five spots to fifth in the standings. Earnhardt is now 13 points behind leader Kevin Harvick heading into next weekend's second round in Loudon, N.H.

"We did adjust and improve the car, and got faster at the end and drove by a bunch of guys that really weren't saving. So that felt pretty good, how the car was running at the end."


"You know what, I felt like we would do well in the Chase. These are good tracks for me," Earnhardt said. "... I felt we would rebound and kind of return to the form we started at the beginning of the year. Again, a lot of guys ran out of gas. But we did adjust and improve the car, and got faster at the end and drove by a bunch of guys that really weren't saving. So that felt pretty good, how the car was running at the end."

Lost in the fuel-mileage finish was the fact that Earnhardt's car was fast at the finish, storming from deep in the pack and into the top 10. Earnhardt was sixth with two laps remaining, before the fuel-mileage shuffle began in earnest. Earnhardt's car started to sputter as he exited Turn 4, but it had enough gas to make it just to the finish -- and not one more lap.

"I think we're proud of the fuel and how we managed that, but we're more proud of the car we had that final run," crew chief Steve Letarte said. "We started [19th], and we legitimately drove up into the top seven or so. That's what you need. Don't get me wrong, I'm very happy with how the guys managed it, how the driver did. Everyone did a great job. The pit stops were great. But I'm the most proud of having a car that could drive up through the field. We haven't had that for 10 weeks, and it felt good to finally have one."

Earnhardt barely made the Chase last week with his 16th-place finish at Richmond, and early on Monday didn't seem able to make much ground. But Letarte kept adjusting the car, the No. 88 kept getting better, and by the end Earnhardt's was one of the fastest vehicles on the track.

"At the end, the car was really good," Earnhardt said. "And I think we were up in the top 10 there. So [I'm] real happy with being able to adjust the car, improve it. That's all you can ask for as a driver, that the car gets better all day long."

With about 20 to go, Letarte told Earnhardt to try and save enough gas to make it to the finish, thinking they'd be less than a half-lap short. With three laps remaining, the crew chief gave his driver the go-ahead to hammer the accelerator again. "All right, bud. Green light. Go as hard as you can go," Letarte said over the radio. It was all very different from the somewhat conservative approach the No. 88 team had taken to ensure they'd get into the Chase. Monday, they went after it hard, just as Earnhardt hoped they would.

"We definitely made some major adjustments, and came here with something fundamentally different than we've been running," Letarte said. "Something more toward the beginning of the year. This is what we talked about. Being aggressive there in the end, we didn't save fuel for very much. We tried to pass as many as we could. We points raced to make the Chase. I doubt we're going to points race in it."

That seems just fine with Earnhardt, who prior to last week's event at Richmond seemed weary of the conservative approach. Monday looked more like the No. 88 team of the first third of the season, during which Earnhardt finished in the top-10 with regularity and reached as high as third in points.

"We tried to be really smart and utilize every minute in practice, and try to really focus in practice and get everything we could out of it," Earnhardt said. "And [we] tried to just be really smart about our adjustments and what we were trying to learn from the car throughout the weekend so we could put a good car out on the starting grid today, and I think we did a good job of that."