Prior to qualifying for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Dale Earnhardt Jr. talked at length about how much he longed to win a points race at his home track for the first time.
Following a disappointing 19th-place finish in Sunday night’s 600-mile race, the Kannapolis, N.C., native will have to wait until at least October — when the Sprint Cup Series returns to Charlotte — to get to Victory Lane at the facility stationed a few miles from where he grew up.
Starting 10th, Earnhardt Jr. spent most of the race among the top 10 and used pit strategy to take the lead — where he ultimately spent 13 laps. Earnhardt Jr. remained in contention for the victory until making an unscheduled green-flag pit stop for a reported vibration on Lap 311 of 400.
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Falling as low as 26th, Earnhardt Jr. made up seven spots over the race’s final laps but finished two laps behind race-winning teammate Jimmie Johnson. While Earnhardt Jr. had certainly hoped for much more on Sunday, NASCAR’s most popular driver could find some consolation in the fact that his No. 88 car was faster than in the previous weekend’s Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte, where he finished fourth but complained extensively about his car’s handling.
"We’ve got good speed," said Earnhardt Jr., who is 0-for-29 in points races at Charlotte but won the all-star race in 2000. "I’m real happy with the speed in the car. We were able to at least finish 19th tonight. We could have blowed up and finished in the back. We had a really good fast car, and I’m really excited about all the races coming up. We’ve had good speed every week. You’re going to have some bad weeks and you’ve got to be able to roll with them.
"This was one of them and we just have to look at the positives and try not to dwell too much on what happened. We just need to go home and find out what it was and see if we can learn something."
As for the exact nature of the issue that brought him to pit road for the unscheduled stop and ruined his shot at a good finish, Earnhardt Jr. wasn’t completely sure even after the race had ended.
"I’m a little frustrated," he said. "But it was trying to blow up. But we had a lot of real high water pressure and a real bad vibration. The vibration was so bad I was afraid to hold it wide open because it would just get so bad at the end of the straightaway. I thought we were about to break the motor. We came in and knocked the pressure out of it and the vibration slowly got better and never completely went away. Something is wrong with the car."
Despite the subpar finish, Earnhardt Jr. remains upbeat about where his team stands moving forward. Since winning the season-opening Daytona 500, the No. 88 bunch has been one of NASCAR’s most consistent teams — despite not winning again.
"We’ve been pretty good all year, I think," said Earnhardt Jr., who dropped one spot to fifth in the standings with his Charlotte finish. "We’ve had good speed all year. We were as good tonight as we were in Kansas and a couple of other races. We just didn’t bring a good car last week to the all-star race but that’s not a reflection of how good this team is."
While not exactly pleased with his Charlotte outcome, Earnhardt Jr. was glad to see teammate Johnson — the reigning and six-time series champion — get to Victory Lane for the first time in 2014.
"I’m happy for Jimmie," Earnhardt Jr. said. "He ran a good race. He was fast here; I thought we had a good enough car to win, though. I thought if we could get out front, we were fast enough to win."