Friday at Kentucky Speedway, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his crew chief Steve Letarte both admitted they were baffled about why the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet was bog slow in qualifying, when he was 29th fastest of 42 cars. And frankly it wasn’t much better in practice for the Quaker State 400 at the 1.5-mile track, either.
In years past, when he had a car that was as evil driving as he had Friday, Earnhardt might have thrown his hands up and gotten frustrated or even been actively cross with crew chief and gone on to have a lousy race.
Not this time around.
Earnhardt, Letarte and the team’s engineers put their collective heads together and came up with both some concrete setup changes and some effective race strategy that allowed Earnhardt to come from deep in the field Saturday night at Kentucky to finish fifth. That gave Earnhardt his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series-high ninth top-five finish of the year, and his fifth straight top-10 result, dating back to Dover last month.
No, Earnhardt had nothing for race winner Brad Keselowski, but no one else did, either. Still, Earnhardt and his team managed to craft an excellent result, when barely 24 hours earlier they were well and truly out in the weeds.
"I didn’t have any answers for why we were struggling yesterday," Earnhardt admitted after the race. "Steve and the engineers got in the hauler and talked all night long, all day today and put a great car underneath us."
Excellent work by the Hendrick Motorsports crew on pit road helped, too.
"The pit crew did an amazing job tonight," said Earnhardt. "Those guys were gaining spots for me every stop. Even when we were taking four tires we were beating a lot of guys off pit road. They’re just a great group and deserve a lot of credit, too."
Having a good car was the big difference, though.
"The National Guard Chevy was way better today, a lot more fun to drive," said Earnhardt. "This place is a bit of a handful for me. I don’t think I’ve got it figured out just yet. I don’t know exactly what I’m looking for and how I need the car to drive. "
You’d never know that by the end of the evening, though, as Earnhardt added another strong finish into what has so far been a tremendous season for the third-generation racer.