SPARTA, Ky. – More than 20 minutes after the Quaker State 400, there was only one driver still lingering with his team in the pits at Kentucky Speedway.
As a group of a half-dozen reporters stood on the periphery of the scene at the No. 88 Chevrolet as several blue and white-uniformed team members scrambled to pack up after a 13th-place finish, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Greg Ives calmly debriefed on their Saturday night. Earnhardt animatedly gestured with his hands several times to Ives, who silently nodded with his arms crossed.
It seemed an intense dissection of a fairly nondescript finish.
But if Earnhardt is to sew up his sixth consecutive berth in the playoffs of NASCAR’s premier series, the discussion symbolizes the path forward in his second season with Ives, who guided the team to three wins last year.
“Communication, talking and sitting down,” Earnhardt said when asked how his team can fix its recent struggles. “It starts with me and Greg. Last year, it came real easy. We get along great. It’s just we’re kind of faced with some adversity. Things aren’t coming as easy on the racetrack. The car’s got speed, but the finishes aren’t there.”
NASCAR’s 13-time most popular driver took a baby step toward improvement Saturday at Kentucky with his third top 15 in five races. After falling from seventh to 13th in the points standings during a four-race stretch in May, Earnhardt’s results have stabilized during the summer, and he currently holds a provisional spot on the Chase for the Sprint Cup grid.
It’s the deepest Earnhardt has gone in a season without a victory since going winless three years ago, but he also has four runner-up finishes — three in the first seven races.
“We had a really rough May that disappointed us,” he said. “We just started off the season so good, and it just ended. We couldn’t get anything right.”
The struggles have been nowhere more evident than at the restrictor-plate tracks of Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, where he crashed and finished last in the May 1 race to start the slump.
After that wreck, Earnhardt vowed the team would address his car’s handling problems before the July 2 race at Daytona. But two months later, nothing had improved. Complaining of handling problems for much of the race, Earnhardt finished 21st in the Coke Zero 400, bringing his average finish to 32.3 on plate tracks in 2016.
“How we’ve negotiated the plate tracks this year has been a real disappointment, because those are easily places we can go get a top 10 or a top five when we need it,” he said. “So we’ve given away 60 points at those races. That’s a lot of damn points, man, those three races. We’ve got to do something. We’ve got to build another car and go to Talladega, and hopefully we’ve got the gremlins figured out and the issues we’ve had.
“But me and (Ives), we talk. We communicate. We talk, text. We spend time together during the week. We’re in meetings together. So we’re around each other working. We’re trying to figure it out.”
It was encouraging for Earnhardt that the team got a reasonable handle on Kentucky after “we sucked on Thursday and Friday.”
NASCAR provided a break by canceling qualifying in favor of more practice time the team desperately needed.
“If you’d have told me I was going to finish 13th Friday, I’d have took it, happily,” he said. “After the way we ran (Saturday), I’m a little frustrated because I thought we should have finished a little better than 13th. We had good speed and a good car at times, but I told Greg, we have the speed, and that’s the hardest thing to get in this sport. If we can fix the little flaws — the human error that I’m doing or anyone else is doing — if we can fix the flaws that we’re creating ourselves that’s easier to do than finding true speed.”
With eight races remaining until the 16-driver field is set for the playoffs, Earnhardt remains 13th in the points standings with a 32-point cushion on the current cut line for the provisional field.
The Hendrick Motorsports driver isn’t nervous.
“Yeah, I’m good,” he said. “What am I going to do? We’re running as good as we can. It’s either going to be good enough or won’t be enough. I’m not really going to lose any sleep over it, at least at this moment.
“When we miss the Chase, it’ll be frustrating and disappointing, but we’re going to plan on not doing that. We’re going to plan on making it.”