Dale Jr. Sharpens Focus On Chase While Taking Points Lead Into Pocono
While Jimmie Johnson’s fourth win at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was the big news that came out of the Kroger Super Weekend at the Brickyard on July 26-29, another major story was Dale Earnhardt Jr. taking over the NASCAR Sprint Cup points lead.
Earnhardt finished a Brickyard career-high fourth. Helped by Matt Kenseth’s 35th-place finish after a crash, Earnhardt climbed to a 14-point lead in the Sprint Cup standings. It was his first lead since the first race in Chase history, Sept. 19, 2004 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
As Earnhardt arrived Friday at Pocono International Raceway for the Pennsylvania 400 on Sunday, he isn’t letting the points lead affect his demeanor. Let’s just say that Earnhardt leads the “Race to the Chase” with a quiet satisfaction that has been a long time coming.
“It’s been a long time since I was in the points lead,” Earnhardt said. “It’s been forever. I can’t even recall when the last time we were in the conversation about the championship. So these things are really validating the effort and the work we’ve done. We’ve worked really hard. We were in Road Atlanta Wednesday, and it was just as miserable as it could be. It was about similar to the practice there in Kentucky where it just gassed the heck out of you. But we worked hard, and we found some speed.
“We’ve been having those types of deals all year long where we’re working hard, and there are some gains that are made. I’ve worked my tail off for most of my career with little gains and time no gains. This year it’s been awesome to go to a racetrack on a Wednesday or Tuesday and work with Steve (Letarte, crew chief) and come away really happy with what happened. I’m enjoying that.
“The points lead is sort of the symbolic piece to all that effort. The points lead recognizes all that hard work for me and, I think, for the team. I’ll say what everybody else says: It’s not the championship. Leading the points today isn’t as awesome as winning the championship and going to Vegas as the top dog, but it does feel good 20 races in the year to have put more points on the board than any other team.”
Earnhardt was more disappointed that he didn’t win at the Brickyard last Sunday than he was excited to take the points lead.
“We’ve felt pretty good about our year and the feeling in the shop feels the same,” Earnhardt said. “The feeling is pretty much similar to how it’s been all season. It’s been a good feeling, and everybody is positive and waiting on the next track. We feel like we had a good enough car to win here last time, so that’s what we’ve been thinking about most of the week. Hopefully the car is just as good this time, and we’ll get another crack at it. That’s really all I’ve been thinking about all week, whether we’ll be as good.
“Every time you go to a racetrack and you’re really fast, the next time you go back you wonder whether that’s going to be the case again. Eventually you are not the fastest guy when you go back. Somebody else is. I hope I get another opportunity like I had this past race at Pocono this weekend because we could win the race with that kind of car.”
Once again, Earnhardt is hearing the accolades instead of the criticism and skepticism whether he would ever win another race. During his two long winless droughts, there were many that thought the most popular driver in NASCAR was all style and no substance. Even Earnhardt admitted he often doubted himself. But he never gave up.
“It didn’t really bother me,” he said. “I was worried about my own situation more than anything, probably. What I needed to do to get it turned around. But I do feel a little bit vindicated to the people that considered I wouldn’t ever be competitive again. Aside from winning a few more races, I don’t know how much more of a statement I could have made then what we made this year. That’s really not even secondary, though. That’s not quite as important to me as just trying to make the best of this year with the final result being more wins and a championship. The closer we get to the Chase, the more real the opportunity seems.”
While Earnhardt continues to look forward, let’s take a chance to look back on what put him in the Cup points lead last Sunday at the Brickyard.
While Johnson’s fourth win in the Brickyard 400 was historic, the biggest cheer from the crowd came when it was announced over the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Public Address that Earnhardt had taken the points lead with his fourth-place finish in the race.
"We were really excited about our car the first run,” Earnhardt said. “I’m happy with how it was driving. I don't know how fast the leaders were, but I thought the car had excellent speed and drive-ability. We messed with the balance a little bit throughout the race. It wasn't perfect at the end. I think we got the best we could with car, and the speed that we had. I'm happy with that. My teammate got the win (Jimmie Johnson). We had a good run. I would like to win here, but I'm going to have to wait until next year.”
Three of the four Hendrick Motorsports cars finished in the top five, led by Johnson’s victory, Earnhardt’s fourth-place and Jeff Gordon’s fifth-place finish.
The finish also provided another example of Earnhardt’s outstanding consistency this season, with nine top-five and 15 top-10 finishes in 20 starts.
“I'm proud of that because it says a lot about our body of work,” Earnhardt said. “All season long, we've been working hard and finishing well. That is symbolic of how well we've done. I'm proud of that. I have felt that way about our position in points all season long. We need to win more races. If we want to win the championship, we have to. I imagine we can win a couple races in Chase. I don't know if finishing fourth or fifth is going to do it. We'll just have to see. We'd like to step it up just a little bit more.”
Earnhardt raced with patience on Sunday after starting way back in 20th position.
“I tried to remind myself to run smooth laps,” he said. “It really didn't do me much good at the end, but I was trying to get to Greg (Biffle), but I just could not do it. I just tried to be smart. Not cost myself any positions getting frustrated. I think we had a good enough car to keep it pretty calm.
“We were looking forward to this race. I wanted to run well here. I want to win this race. I want to get a trophy here and go to Victory Lane. One of our teammates was able to do that, so we are proud for the company. We're happy with a finish. We want to win races; we want more.”
While Earnhardt was trying to figure out what it takes to actually win at the Brickyard, crew chief Steve Letarte was standing down pit road talking about the remarkable season that Earnhardt is enjoying. It’s a season where he broke the longest winless streak in his career dating all the way back to June 2008 when he drove to victory at Michigan International Speedway on Father’s Day.
“I think they stopped cheering for us after we won at Michigan,” Letarte said. “Everyone was happy we won at Michigan, but they aren’t cheering for us anymore. It’s nice to have speed, and the 48 (Jimmie Johnson’s team) had speed today. I would have loved to have lined up close to them to compare speed, but I don’t think we had more. Speed is a good thing. Now we go to Pocono and looking to go there and get another trophy.”
Letarte believes this year’s NASCAR Sprint Cup championship could be fought out between Johnson and Earnhardt.
“This race right here is a big race, and the cream usually rises to the top at this race,” Letarte said. “To have a 1-4 finish out of our building and a 1-4-5 finish for the boss (Rick Hendrick), we feel good. But feeling good in August doesn’t guarantee success in November, and we know that.
“We just want to compete week in and week out, and I feel like we are doing that.”
A confident Earnhardt could be quite a contender for the Cup title. Imagine the drama if the championship comes down to Johnson and Earnhardt battling each other for the title.
To Earnhardt, that’s a dream scenario.
“We would actually rather us two to fight for the championship at the end, knowing one of us is going to get it for the company,” Earnhardt said. “If I could line that up right now, I would. That is how I'd have it."