Dale Earnhardt Jr. scores top-10 finish despite challenges

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BRISTOL, Tenn. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. scored his fourth consecutive finish of 11th or better Saturday night despite having to make an extra pit stop at one point and hitting the wall a couple of times at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Earnhardt, who started 20th, fell to the back of the field when he had to pit a second time during the first caution but fought back to place ninth.

Earnhardt had to return to pit road when the team’s front tire changer knocked two lug nuts off the right tire, crew chief Greg Ives said. Ives said it wasn’t worth the gamble to stay out and risk having to pit under green – which would put Earnhardt two laps behind the leaders – so he called Earnhardt back to pit road.

“That put us behind everyone,’’ Earnhardt said. “It’s just so hard to pass here. Kyle (Busch) was flying at the start of the race and lapped all the way to us and a couple more cars. We just can’t get behind early like that when there are so many cars on the lead lap.

“Hell, we were running 12th and getting lapped. So hard to pass. Even the lapped traffic is hard to pass. You got to run like two or three corners to set a guy up and get in position. You can lose half a straightaway quick, even a straightaway to people you are racing against.’’

Earnhardt also hit the wall as he tried to keep eventual winner Joey Logano from lapping him.

“I think it bent up the rear-end housing a little bit,’’ Earnhardt said. “It bent the wheel. When it bends the wheel, it bends something else. Probably why we lost so many positions at the end there. We should have run fifth or sixth, but on the long run it just got real bad.

“It was my fault. I was pushing the envelope there running real, real high up next to the marbles, and I also was trying to give the leader Logano enough room to where he wouldn’t have run over me. He should have just ran over me, to be honest with you, because I was making it so difficult.’’

Logano and others – particularly the Joe Gibbs Racing stable – have made it hard on other teams this summer. Hendrick Motorsports has had its struggles and led only five laps since Earnhardt’s win at Daytona in July.

“I feel we have the right guys, we have the right people in place, it’s really up to me to utilize everybody to get the best out of it,’’ Ives said of how Earnhardt’s team has performed. “I feel our race team is not showing our capabilities as far as finishes. I feel we have smart people behind us and guys who have been here and done that. We’ve just got to use our experience and keep trying to move forward.’’