Dale Earnhardt Jr. is 32 points above the cutoff for the Chase for the Sprint Cup and after a “borderline” finish last weekend at Kentucky Speedway will be aiming for top-12 finishes in the last eight races of the regular season.
That stretch begins this weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where Earnhardt participated in a tire test earlier this year.
“Hopefully that helps us out and we get a good run this weekend,” Earnhardt said on his “Dale Jr. Download” podcast. “We need to keep up some consistency. I think top 12s is really the mark for the rest of the way to the Chase. I don’t want anything worse than that. This week was really borderline for getting our butts in the Chase, so we can’t do any worse than that.”
Earnhardt has 15 top-10 finishes at Loudon, including four of the last seven starts.
“Hardest thing to get in this sport is speed,” Earnhardt said. “We can fix the things we do ourselves, the errors we make personally, but finding that damn speed is hard and we have good speed. We’ll put together a good race here soon and maybe get our butts in victory lane.”
Earnhardt is in this position due to a rough weekend Kentucky Speedway and that’s not including the surprising bumps in the track’s newly repaved surface.
Earnhardt called the weekend at Kentucky a “weird” one that resulted in a 13th-place finish.
It started with Thursday’s practice devoted to scuffing tires at the suggestion of Goodyear. When rain hit the track on Friday, Earnhardt and his team feared they wouldn’t get enough proper practice time. But the No. 88 team was relieved when NASCAR canceled qualifying in order to give teams more track time on the new track surface.
“I’ll be honest with you, (crew chief) Greg (Ives) and I were talking about it after the race, we didn’t even have a run in practice Friday that we even liked,” Earnhardt said. “We did put up a lap that was fourth (fastest) on the board, but we didn’t like the car very much. The car wasn’t driving well. But when I thought about it, I don’t think anybody’s car was driving great.”
Earnhardt attributes it to the “conservative” tire Goodyear had brought to the track after the test at Kentucky earlier in the season produced blistering.
“It made the track slick and made the cars not drive well,” said Earnhardt. “So when the left side tire’s really hard, the cars tend to push real bad, especially in the throttle through the center and off the exit of the corner in the gas. So we have that at most of the tracks where the surface is relatively new because the tire’s still pretty conservative. So we get in the gas at places like Pocono and drag the left front off the corner. It sucks, you can’t turn and drive underneath anybody. It’s real frustrating.”
Adding to the frustration of Earnhardt and others was the surprising appearance of the infamous frontstretch bumps at Kentucky, which were supposed to be done away with in the repave.
“This is something the track isn’t going to want to hear, but the front straightaway is getting some bumps already,” Earnhardt said. “It’s incredible. I thought our car was just bad, as far as the set up or bumps or springs in the front. But I talked to other drivers and they were talking about how bad the front straightaway got on Friday. In just one day, it started bouncing like hell. I couldn’t believe it. Track’s not going to be happy about that.
“Then in the race with about 30 laps to go, my guts were hurting so bad from bouncing down the front straightaway. Literally, your guts are bouncing around your rib cage. It’s painful. So I could not wait to finish that race and get our of the car.”
After starting 13th, Earnhardt had an average running position of 12.93. With 27 laps left, while his guts were “bouncing around,” Earnhardt had the car in 15th. But the race turned into one based on fuel mileage. As the finish neared, cars in front of him began pitting.
Earnhardt was around seventh when he took the white flag.
“I saw (Tony Stewart) lifting early,” Earnhardt said. “He pretty much saved the entire last run and I didn’t. I started with 25 laps to go. I could have done a better job, should have done a better job. Next time I will. Or I’ll try.”
It resulted in the No. 88 running out of gas on the last lap and losing six spots.
“We were lucky to even finish I suppose; Beggars can’t be choosers,” Earnhardt said.