Dale Earnhardt Jr. moved back atop the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points standings with a hard-fought third-place finish behind Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson in Sunday’s STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway.
Although he did not have a dominant car — that belonged to Hendrick Motorsports teammate Johnson, who led 296 of 500 laps — Earnhardt was one of nine drivers to lead at least 10 laps at the 0.526-mile Virginia paperclip of a track.
With tire wear an issue all race long for the full field, Earnhardt did what he needed to do to score a series-high fourth top-five finish of the season: He practiced patience over 500 long laps.
"You had to just discipline yourself to not use the throttle, and I think we’ll have a lot of fun looking at the throttle trace on some of them runs because I was quarter throttle at the max … even on the straightaways," said Earnhardt. "There just wasn’t no point in mashing the gas any further than that."
The reason why Earnhardt and the other drivers had to feather the throttle was simple: Apply too much pedal early in the run and your rear tires would quickly wear out, especially the left rears, which is what happened to some of the competition, most notably the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas of Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth, which faded badly during the race.
"You couldn’t run any harder with the wear we had on the tires," said Earnhardt. "You just couldn’t afford to. You saw how the 20 car (Kenseth) and the 18 car (Busch), those guys would run real hard at the lead early in the race, and they set an example for the rest of us to watch out and be easy on that left-rear tire, and it just goes away like a snap."
And so, the best way for Earnhardt to keep moving forward was to not force the issue too much and let the race come to him, which is exactly how he played it.
"I couldn’t afford to run any harder if I wanted to be competitive on the end of these runs, and particularly we seen longer runs here than we saw today," Earnhardt said after the race. "None of the runs went past 80 laps, but typically we see a good long run in the middle of the race, and we were just ready for that."
Earnhardt credited crew chief Steve Letarte for keeping him on task during the long race.
"You can easily get yourself carried away and race a guy and forget taking care of your car and taking care of your left-rear tire," said Earnhardt. "It’s easy to get swept up in the competition of things, and he (Letarte) is good at sort of cheerleading you along the way and running the show. He does a good job on top of the box."