Lack of restart speed costs Dale Earnhardt Jr. shot at win

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It was a pass for second that essentially cost Dale Earnhardt Jr. a victory Sunday at Michigan International Speedway.

Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevrolet was beside leader Kyle Larson’s No. 42 Chevy on a Lap 130 restart in the Quicken Loans 400. But despite having tires that were 30 laps fresher, Earnhardt couldn’t pass Larson from the inside lane, and the situation worsened when Kurt Busch whizzed by on the outside as well.

Larson, who was gambling to keep the lead if the race was shortened by rain, pitted for fuel on lap 133 and handed the lead to Busch. The skies opened a few laps later, and the race was halted after 138 laps.

Between three prior red flags and 38 laps of caution (most of it for rain), Earnhardt said he didn’t have time to get his car handling correctly.

“It didn’t give you a whole lot of opportunities to understand your car and know exactly how to adjust your car and what to work on, so we were still dealing with some issues that we wanted to improve when the final shower came,” said Earnhardt, who started 14th and led a lap. “But we had great long‑run speed.  We didn’t really get a good qualifying effort.  We haven’t qualified well all year, and we got a good long run in, and the car took off and passed a lot of guys.

“When it came to the restarts, we didn’t take off as well as (Busch).  We saw the same thing at Charlotte, (third-place finisher Martin Truex Jr.) and (Busch) take off real good.  We were just kind of tight waiting on the front to work, don’t have the good speed that they have the first three or four laps, and that was the difference today.

On long green-flag stretches, Earnhardt said his Chevy was as fast as Kevin Harvick, who led a race-high 63 laps and “had the field covered,” according to Earnhardt.

The runner-up finish was Earnhardt’s best since last month’s victory at Talladega Superspeedway, and the 11-time most popular driver moved up a spot to fourth in the points standings with his eighth top five in 14 starts.

But being virtually locked into the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Earnhardt said he was more focused on running well than posting consistent finishes.

“Over the last several years we’ve been as good or better than anybody during the regular season and just haven’t showed up in the Chase,” said the Hendrick Motorsports driver, whose best Chase finish is fifth three times (2004, ’06, ’13). “I told my guys after Pocono (last week) when we run 11th with about a third‑place car that I wasn’t going to worry about finishes, and I wasn’t going to worry about trying to get everything I can on finishes. I was just going to go to the track to try to win, try to learn.  We need to make sure when we get to the Chase, we understand everything we can about the car and how to deliver the best car every week.

“Trying to be as consistent as you can and finish as well as you can, (that) can kind of mask some of your weaknesses, I guess. You can forget that you need to work. Everybody is trying to catch you. I just ain’t going to worry about it. We’ve always done well during the first 26 races and never done well in the Chase, so I’m just concentrating on the Chase now that we’re locked in. We go to win these races, we don’t win them, it doesn’t really matter to me where we finish just as long as we’ve got fast cars, and we’re understanding how to get better.”