A ninth-place finish certainly wasn’t the outcome Dale Earnhardt Jr. had in mind for Sunday’s Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Then again, all things considered, ninth wasn’t so bad for NASCAR’s most popular driver.
After qualifying a disappointing 23rd in his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, Earnhardt Jr. had moved up into the top 10 by Lap 26 and appeared to have a car capable of getting closer to the front and perhaps challenging for the win.
On a different pit sequence, however, from leader Denny Hamlin when the caution flag waved on Lap 69 for Danica Patrick’s stopped vehicle, Earnhardt Jr. was momentarily trapped a lap down before being awarded "The Lucky Dog" and returning to the lead lap.
In all reality, though, the caution was anything but a lucky break for Earnhardt Jr., who likely would have cycled back up into the top 10 if the race had remained green.
Instead, the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet restarted 29th and last among lead-lap cars on Lap 73 of 160, and began a second charge forward from deep in the field.
When the final caution flag waved for Ryan Truex’s stalled car with 22 laps to go, Earnhardt Jr. had worked his way back up to 13th.
While the top seven cars elected not to come to pit road, Earnhardt Jr. was among those who did, and restarted in 14th with 17 laps to go. The third-generation driver needed just nine laps to scratch and claw his way up to ninth — where he remained at the finish.
"That’s a ninth-place finish we can be proud of," Earnhardt Jr. wrote on Twitter after the race. "Lost a lap … during a pit cycle and passed more cars than anyone. Great car again."
Just how good was Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 entry?
Crew chief Steve Letarte wasn’t sure.
"You never can tell here," said Letarte of the mostly flat 2.5-mile Indianapolis circuit." The 11 (Hamlin) ran third and we could run him down when we were behind him at times. I think the 24 (race winner Jeff Gordon) was the best car here, and he won. The 18 (second-place finisher Kyle Busch) looked to be the second-best car here — he finished second. Maybe the 5 (sixth-place Kasey Kahne) was up there, too. I think we probably could have ran anywhere from second or third on back if we could have got there, but we just weren’t good enough or lucky enough. We weren’t everything."
Letarte regretted the poorly-timed caution that left Earnhardt Jr. a lap down and all but ended his hopes of snaring his first Brickyard win.
"We started 23rd, we were aggressive with our pit strategy, we talked about being aggressive and everybody wants to be aggressive, and sometimes you get caught," Letarte said. "The 11 (Hamlin) was on a different strategy, which we knew he was going to put us a lap down for a lap or two and that’s what happened, and the caution came out at the exact wrong time, and that was basically the end of our day. You can’t go to the back at that point."
But the team can look forward with great anticipation to this weekend’s race at Pocono Raceway, a unique triangular-shaped layout where Earnhardt Jr. went to Victory Lane when the Sprint Cup Series last convened there in June.
"It seems like guys that run well there can sort of sustain it," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I’ve seen guys sweep there, or at least have opportunities to sweep and come close. And I like the track, and we have run well there since the repave, and I anticipate us being competitive again."
A look back at Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s win at Pocono last June