News & Media

Junior leads Happy Hour at RIR; stokes debate

April 27, 2012, Dave Rodman,

RICHMOND, Va. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. kicked off the top of a miniature anthill last weekend in Kansas when he was asked if he felt he was the best driver in the Sprint Cup garage, and he replied that he was.

In Friday's interview session at Richmond International Raceway he reconfirmed his opinion and then in final practice for Saturday's Capital City 400, put an exclamation point on it by outrunning 44 other drivers.

Richmond Speeds

Practice 1
2.G. Biffle 126.186 21.397
3.P. Menard 126.139 21.405
4.C. Bowyer 126.133 21.406
5.J. Logano 125.997 21.429
2.C. Edwards 123.706 21.826
3.L. Cassill 123.209 21.914
4.J. Gordon 123.113 21.931
5. Ky. Busch 122.783 21.990

"That is a healthy debate, that is healthy among race fans as far as who is the best driver," Earnhardt said. "All the drivers in the garage feel like they are the best, individually, and they should. That is kind of the way you have to approach it.

"I figured that was definitely debatable and the race fans are going to voice their opinion and that's good. I certainly don't like to rock any boats, but you have to answer the question honestly."

Earnhardt's comments are almost a revelation since he's in the midst of a 137-race winless streak that stretches to June 2008. At times since then Earnhardt's self-confidence level has been questioned.

But this season has started better than any Earnhardt's begun since 2008, his first with Hendrick Motorsports. And working with crew chief Steve Letarte has done wonders for Earnhardt's confidence.

"He's definitely made me more accountable, would be a way to explain it for the words I choose to use and how I choose to describe the car to him," Earnhardt said of Letarte. "He's not going to put up with me verbally abusing him or the equipment. I wouldn't expect anything less than him being a professional, as well.

"I think we have a good in-race relationship. He does a really good job of providing me with information and calming me that we are going to fix any issues we have. I feel confident that he has fixed enough issues and improved the car during enough races that I don't really get as worried about it when something isn't quite right. I know that the chances of it getting improved and fixed are really good.

"I've got great confidence in him and his abilities to orchestrate the weekend as good as I would expect. We get along really good because of that confidence between each other. I think there is good trust there, too."

And for Earnhardt, that creates a positive ripple effect.

"I learned a long time ago that if you don't have confidence in your car that can be problematic for you," Earnhardt said. "If you don't have confidence in your crew chief then that can be problematic for you and if you don't have the same confidence in yourself it's not conducive to being successful.

"You have to feel like you're here and you're the best and that is the way you should feel. In any profession, you have to have that kind of confidence."

On Friday at Richmond, that translated to a best lap of 21.8 seconds, an average speed of 123.853 mph, in the 24 he turned in Happy Hour. That was better than Carl Edwards, Landon Cassill, Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch.

However, despite Earnhardt's confidence, Mark Martin might be the early favorite for Saturday night, as Martin was quickest in first practice, when he said he set one fast lap to lock in the final spot in Friday's qualifying order, and then concentrated on race runs.

Martin's best single lap in the first practice was 21.309 seconds, an average speed of 126.707 mph, but more importantly, Martin had the best 10-lap average in Happy Hour, 121.302 mph, near the end of his practice. Martin also had the eighth-best 10-lap average in the first session.

But Earnhardt, who won three Richmond races using the previous version of the premier series race car, still has no lack of confidence at RIR, or anywhere else.

That's a little strange here, though, since Earnhardt has only one top-10 finish in 10 "new car" races since 2007. He hasn't led a lap at Richmond since September 2008.

"I like short tracks," Earnhardt said. "This has been a good one for us for a couple of races. I have always enjoyed running here. It's a fun track. Not your typical short track with the way the front straightaway is.

"It definitely makes each corner unique from the other and the way you drive the track can change throughout the race.  It's a lot of fun for a driver. I enjoy racing here. I think it will be a good race."

Richard Childress Racing can only hope so after each of its three cars had trouble during practice. Paul Menard's No. 27 Chevrolet had the third-best lap in the first practgice but crashed on his 12th lap when a misadjusted throttle stop caused his car's throttle to stick.

* Video: Menard to backup after practice crash

After Menard hit the wall, he mashed the brake, and the engine shut off by design with the electronic fuel injection system, new to the series this year.

"The throttle broke," Menard said as his team readied a backup car. "It hung as I was coming out onto the straightaway, so my foot wasn't on the brake and I tried kicking it back even after I hit the wall, and it was still hung, so I just laid on the brake and it shut off like it was supposed to."

Menard made 23 more laps in his backup car, including another stuck throttle that caused no issues. Menard was 38th in Happy Hour after running 32 laps.

RCR teammate Kevin Harvick locked into 12th in the first session with a qualifying run, but his No. 29 Chevrolet's transmission stuck in reverse gear so his team had to make a NASCAR-approved transmission change that won't require them to give up their qualified spot. Harvick was 25th in Happy Hour.

Near the end of the first practice, third RCR driver Jeff Burton thought he had an electrical problem or a broken engine, but it turned out to be an issue with a spark-plug wire. Burton, a Virginia favorite from South Boston, was 31st on both the first practice sheet and the Happy Hour report.

NASCAR Wire Service contributed to this report.