Before Dale Earnhardt Jr. can return to one of his best tracks, he must go to one he probably could do without.
The Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway is peeking around the corner for Earnhardt. But he and the rest of the Sprint Cup Series are on the opposite coast this weekend at Sonoma Raceway in California.
If you saw Earnhardt and his No. 88 team celebrating like crazy after his third-place finish at Sonoma in 2014, there’s a reason. He and the road courses of Sonoma and Watkins Glen are not on the best of terms.
“The road courses are basically… you know you’re just kind of swinging at whatever comes at you at those race tracks and doing the best you can to complete the weekend without any major mistakes,” Earnhardt told NBC Sports in May. “I don’t go to the road courses with any confidence that I can win the race. I go in there really just thinking survive just let’s try not to screw it up.”
If anyone needs a confidence boost this weekend in the Toyota/ Save Mart 350, it’s Earnhardt. The Hendrick Motorsports driver has yet to win this season to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup and is currently 11th in the points. That’s after he peaked at sixth in the standings following a runner-up result at Bristol. In the seven races since, Earnhardt has finished in the top 10 just once, another runner-up finish at Pocono Raceway.
But Sonoma could be a surprising wild card for Earnhardt. Prior to 2014, Earnhardt had never finished better than 11th on the road course. But in the last two visits to wine country, the No. 88 has finished in the top 10. Earnhardt earned a result of seventh last year.
“I go into every other race, I mean if it’s an oval I go in there knowing that there is potential we can win the race,” Earnhardt said. “But we go to Watkins Glen and Sonoma basically if we get in the top 10 in qualifying and we finish in the top five that’s a win. We celebrated harder when we finished third at Sonoma than we did during any of the wins in 2014 and when we won the Daytona 500. Those road courses are a real challenge.”
Not all would be lost if Earnhardt falters on the West Coast. Of the 10 tracks before the start of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Earnhardt has won at five of them (Daytona, Michigan, Pocono, Bristol and Richmond).
But the key point could be Daytona, a track he’s won at four times in his Sprint Cup career. But his restrictor-plate abilities haven’t been helpful in his last two visits to Daytona and Talladega. Earnhardt recorded a DNF in each race after his car crashed after spinning out on its own.