Dale Jr. praises team for top-five at Kentucky
June 29, 2014, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com
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SPARTA, Ky. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. did practically nothing of note on the race track leading into Saturday night's Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway.
His practice times were uninspiring -- 14th and 19th in the two Friday sessions -- and he qualified his No. 88 Chevrolet a distant 29th. With the exception of 30th at Talladega, it was his worst starting position of the year.
How then did the Hendrick Motorsports driver wind up fifth when the checkered flag finally appeared?
"I'm proud of my team, man," Earnhardt Jr., 39, said on pit road following the race. "I didn't think we were going to be very good. We weren't good yesterday. I could tell you I didn't have any answers."
Fortunately, others did. Crew chief Steve Letarte and the team's engineers came up with a lengthy list of changes to be made prior to the race. Notes from the teams of teammates Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne were studied.
"It's not like throwing darts; we had somewhat of an idea," Letarte said afterward. "But still, you don't sleep great changing that much stuff."
Earnhardt Jr. broke into the top 20 thanks to a two-tire pit stop just before Lap 30 of the 267-lap event. He was inside the top 10 by Lap 80, again after quick pit work by his crew. He remained there for the remainder of the race.
"Those guys were gaining spots for me every stop," he said. "Even when we were taking four tires, we were beating a lot of guys off pit road. They're just a great group and deserve a lot of credit."
His final stop came under green-flag conditions, just before the night's sixth and final caution appeared when Aric Almirola tagged the wall. When the race resumed, Earnhardt Jr. was third beecause most of the leaders had yet to come to pit road.
Restarting on the inside wasn't an issue (Earnhardt Jr. fell outside the top five on the restart) according to Letarte.
"It was a gain," Letarte said of the green-flag stop. "We needed to get our car better on the first couple of laps there. He said he didn't get a great restart, but it looked like it was a little low on grip, too. So that hurt us. But still a top five, we'll take it."
His driver couldn't reel in eventual race winner Brad Keselowski, but then again, neither could anyone else. Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth were second through fourth.
It was Earnhardt Jr.'s 12th top-10 finish and ninth top-five. He remains third in points -- both he and teammate Johnson have 594 points while Gordon still leads, now by 24.
"I don't know really how good it was," Earnhardt Jr. said of his car. "I just don't feel real comfortable here. I haven't driven a car that I really thought I liked (here), so I don't know what I'm looking for at this place yet."
The track might be a bit more bumpy than most, but "it throws everybody a bit of a curveball," he said. "Some people figure it out and some people don't. I'm one of the drivers that appreciate a good, slick race track, a good, old surface."