KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. stealthily sauntered up on an interview with his crew chief after Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400, eavesdropping on the final question fielded by Greg Ives.
Would the No. 88 team bring the same Chevrolet to Talladega Superspeedway next weekend that Earnhardt drove to victory on the 2.66-mile track five months ago?
Ives didn’t have the chance to answer.
“Of course we are,” Earnhardt said with a smile and a slap on the reporter’s shoulder. “That’s a dumb question. Hell, yeah!”
The second round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup remained a dismal slog for Earnhardt, who finished 21st at Kansas Speedway, but it hardly dented his enthusiasm for the Oct. 25 conclusion.
While virtually all of his championship rivals (with the exception of Kansas winner Joey Logano) dreading their trip to Alabama’s roulette wheel of a racetrack, Earnhardt is embracing Talladega as a potential season savior that could catapult him into the third round of the NASCAR playoffs.
With six victories and as the most recent winner there, why wouldn’t he?
As he said multiple times Sunday, where else would he rather face a win-or-bust situation than Talladega?
“I know one race, one opportunity, one chance makes the odds feel bad, but we won there earlier this year,” said Earnhardt, who trails Martin Truex Jr., ranked eighth on the cutoff line, by 31 points. “And we went to Daytona and won (in July) and won (a qualifying race) and were third in the 500. I mean, don’t count us out. We’ve got confidence, and we’ve definitely got a car to do it.
“Talladega is a track I’m ready to go to. That’s our best shot to win.”
It won’t be a panacea for everything ailing the No. 88 at the moment. Earnhardt had to overcome a 15th-place starting position and though he briefly cracked the top 10, he battled a persistent problem with shaking wheels.
It was a missed opportunity reminiscent of a 28th last week at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where Earnhardt collided with Carl Edwards and then tagged the wall after sliding through oil.
“Both places we had fast cars, but we can’t make mistakes,” Ives said, adding the car was “easily top 10” in both races. “Obviously, we have to be positive going to Talladega. We’ve been strong at those restrictor plates, but it still comes down to executing, and if we can’t do that as a team and can’t minimize our mistakes and execute, then it doesn’t really matter how fast the car is.
“We just have to do a better job as a team to stick together, minimize our mistakes. It’s not because we don’t have good cars or good equipment, we just have to gel a little better and hopefully this young team will be able to do that.”
A vibration from a perpetually shaking wheel was a mystery to the Hendrick Motorsports team and many others (including Kevin Harvick, who radioed his team that he thought his engine was expiring on the 14th lap because the vibration was so violent).
“We had vibrations on every set of tires,” Earnhardt said. “It caused a lot of problems. Not just for me. I know a lot of guys were complaining about it. It wasn’t so bad that it hurt the balance of your car. You just don’t like your car to shake. You want the car to ride smooth.”
Earnhardt’s hopes of a decent finish were doomed when he fell a lap down because of an unscheduled stop under green on Lap 165 of 269 with what he believed to be a loose wheel.
“I’m fine,” he said. “We’ll get it figured out. I believe in my guys. I really do.”
Ives said the team couldn’t diagnose whether a loose wheel was the culprit as it had been in three previous races this season (“There was no evidence, but it’s really hard to tell”), but it didn’t change the fact that “we have to clean up what we do on pit road.
“Whether it’s myself making calls or the pit crew putting the lug nuts on or just the whole choreography of what’s going on,” he said. “Nothing is to be minimized or overlooked, but for us, we’ve got to stay focused on the task.”
For Earnhardt, the task is simple: Win Talladega.
The simplicity of the objective explains why he approached a gaggle of reporters in the pits with a “Hey, what’s up?” and a broad grin after the race.
“I’m not frustrated,” he said. “I’m not mentally or emotionally drained or anything like that.
“The way the Chase is racked up, it’s going to give you these kinds of results if you don’t perform. We have to go to Talladega and try not to get eliminated. I’ve been in this before, and it is what it is. We’ll try to go run hard, and if we don’t win the championship this year, it’s not life-threatening.”