Broken shifter slows Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s chances in Charlotte

Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s chance for a victory -- and for advancement into the next round of the Chase for a Sprint Cup -- took a serious hit when the gear shifter in his No. 88 Chevrolet broke during Saturday night's Bank of America 500 at Charlotte.

Jonathan Ferrey/NASCAR via Getty Images

In a race in which he needed a solid finish in terms of his championship hopes, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s night at Charlotte Motor Speedway was made much more difficult when his shifter lever broke inside the car with just under 200 laps to go.

The issue ended up costing him any chance he had of a solid finish and relegated him to a 20th-place finish that put his hopes of advancing to the next round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup in serious jeopardy. One race remains in the Contender round — next Sunday at Talladega — and Earnhardt Jr. now almost certainly will have to win that event to advance.

Earnhardt Jr.’s troubles started early Saturday night.

When Paul Menard blew an engine to bring out the third caution of the night on Lap 136, Earnhardt Jr. brought his No. 88 Chevrolet to pit road so the team could attempt to make repairs.

Pitting prior to the opening of pit road, crew chief Steve Letarte of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team directed his crew members on how to fix the broken shifter. But after two stops under the caution, the team was unable to get the issues resolved.

With the race getting ready to restart, Earnhardt Jr. explained he could shift between third and fourth gear, but could not move it over. Instead of risking repairs as the field went back racing, Letarte directed his driver to stay on the track as they made a plan to fix the shifter under the next caution.

The issue dropped Earnhardt Jr. to the tail end of the lead lap in 23rd when the race restarted on Lap 144, the deepest of any of the twelve Chase drivers at the time.

Earnhardt Jr. entered Saturday night’s Bank of America 500 11th in the Chase standings after blowing a tire and hitting the wall while leading last weekend at Kansas Speedway. He left in 12th, 26 points out of the eighth-place cutoff with only next Sunday’s race at Talladega before the current field of 12 is trimmed by four drivers.

This is not the first shifter issue for Hendrick Motorsports this season. Jimmie Johnson had a similar issue at Michigan International Speedway in August and was forced to use a pair of vice grips to shift the car.

Unable to make repairs on their next green flag pit stop, the No. 88 crew members had to push Earnhardt Jr. down pit road after he completed his stop on Lap 190. When the caution flew on Lap 221 the team had another opportunity to make repairs, but once again failed to completely fix the broken shifter.

After the stop on Lap 223, a frustrated Earnhardt Jr. proposed the team get a long wrench and weld it to the bottom screw on the shifter boot, then give him a pair of vise grips. He felt the wrench would provide the stability to keep the vise grips secure.

When the caution flew once again on Lap 239, Earnhardt Jr. came back down pit road twice for further repairs. Restarting the race in 22nd and one lap down with just under 100 laps to go, Letarte was pleased with the team’s effort on the stops and tried to focus his driver on making up lost ground in the closing stages of the race.

As the leaders hit pit road for the final round of green flag stops, Letarte tried to keep Earnhardt Jr. on track and catch a caution, but he had to pit with 11 laps to go and ultimately fell to 20th.

After the race, both driver and crew chief were frustrated with their efforts after entering the weekend with such high hopes for a victory.

"We had a real bad vibration and broke a transmission shifter off," said Earnhardt Jr. "We only had third and fourth gear there and lost a lap trying to get off pit road on a green flag stop.

"We had a pretty good car; a top-10 car. The vibration issue was causing a lot of balance issues, and grip issues. But, we had a good enough car to run in the top 10. This isn’t what we need to do. I don’t know. We’ve had some phantom vibrations throughout the year and not really had those until the last year and a half, or two years. So it is hard to say."

For Letarte, it was clear if they want to win races and contend for the title, they can’t have nights like they had Saturday night in Charlotte.

"You can’t break parts if you want to win races," said Letarte. "We’ve just got to figure out why that part broke. The 48 (car driven by Jimmie Johnson) obviously broke one earlier in the year and we made changes to the part so it wouldn’t happen again. I think the part is probably just the end cause, though. We had a vibration in the car — we didn’t have it in practice, but we picked it up today. Vibrations hurt horsepower, hurt handling, hurt parts. That’s probably the root cause, and the shifter is just the result."

Heading to Talladega next week in a must-win situation, Letarte said the team will take the same approach they took Saturday night.

"I don’t think a good run here was going to make a difference," he said. "You had to win. We had to win here and we have to win at Talladega. I said it earlier this week, everyone sounds disappointed that the points creates that, I would argue that it gives you the opportunity to move forward with a win. Last year, our tire at Kansas would have eliminated us (from title contention) as well. At least we have a chance. You go to Talladega and win and you’ll be tied for the points lead leaving Talladega."