Though Hendrick Motorsports has rebounded from a mostly disappointing 2015 season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. said there is an internal theme of still needing to “grind a little bit.”
Earnhardt embodied that philosophy with his runner-up finish in Saturday night’s Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
After being caught in the pits during a yellow flag and falling outside the top 10 with 100 laps to go, Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevrolet zoomed into the top five for the final restart. He whizzed by Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. in the final 30 laps.
“We had a great car,” Earnhardt said after tying his best Texas finish since November 2013. “We didn’t really know we had that good a car, but when the race started, we were real tight. We made some good adjustments to get the car handling well, and then really controlled the balance of the car the rest of the night with the track bar. We had about a second‑ or third‑place car.
“We got lucky at the end to be able to restart on the inside. The outside was kind of difficult, and we restarted fifth and were able to get up to third and raced (Logano) at the end. It was fun. I enjoyed driving the car tonight. The car was very loose and very challenging but a lot of fun for me.”
It was the fourth consecutive top 10 finish at the 1.5-mile oval for Earnhardt, who had finished outside the top 10 in his previous two starts this season at Martinsville Speedway (14th) and Auto Club Speedway (11th).
Between Earnhardt, Jimmie Johnson (fourth) Chase Elliott (fifth) and Kasey Kahne (eighth), Hendrick put all four of its Chevys in the top 10.
“I think the company as a whole is pushing real hard to improve, and there’s an impression within the company that we need to grind a little bit and make some gains going forward into the middle of the season here,” Earnhardt said. “Usually, we typically have a top‑10 or a top‑five car, but tonight we had one of the best two or three cars, and you can’t ask for anything better than that. That’s going to get you opportunities to win races. That’s a lot to ask when it really comes down to it. There’s so much competition out here.”
Earnhardt said if there is an opportunity for improvement, it might be in his feedback to crew chief Greg Ives. Before one pit stop, he gave a detailed explanation of the car’s handling after Ives suggested an adjustment.
“Sometimes we’re not quite where we need to be on communication as far as if I tell him the car is loose,” Earnhardt said. “I guess maybe I need to be more descriptive in giving him understanding how loose the car is. Usually, I got used to (former crew chief) Steve (Letarte) just listening to my tone and knowing exactly what kind of adjustment to make.
“I’ve got to be more descriptive to help (Ives) understand how loose or how tight the car is instead of assuming that he’s knowing what I’m thinking just by the tone of my voice, I guess. But we’ll get there. We’ve just got to spend more time together.”
Often by dining together, Earnhardt and Letarte became close by hanging out away from the track.
“I think that’s what me and Greg need to push ourselves to do more of, and we’ll get to know each other a lot better than what we’re seeing at the racetrack,” Earnhardt said. “We don’t really get to know each other at the track that much because we’re working so hard.”