Earnhardt Jr. to charge ahead with 'nothing-to-lose' attitude
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s championship hopes took a hit during Sunday’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and the Hendrick Motorsports driver now heads into the next two races of the Contender Round with a nothing to lose attitude.
After hitting the wall multiple times, Earnhardt brought the No. 88 Chevrolet home in the 28th spot, four laps down to race winner Joey Logano. Although he entered the day optimistic about a good run in front of the hometown crowd, Earnhardt’s day was instead full of ups and mostly downs.
“Some other guys had trouble, and some other guys will have more trouble,” Earnhardt said on pit road after Sunday’s race. “We’ve got to stay positive and we can still make it to the next round. We’ve got two tracks that we can run real, real well at, if not win races at. We didn’t put ourselves in a good situation, but we were in the same boat last round.”
Battling hard inside the top 10 just 75 laps into the event, Earnhardt drove hard into Turn 1 fighting fellow Chase competitor Carl Edwards for position. As the pair went into the corner, Edwards made contact with the left rear of Earnhardt’s car, sending it up the banking and into the outside retaining wall.
“Carl got a great run on us and drove down into (Turn) 1 and got into the back of us a little bit,” he said. “I don’t know if I cut him off or what. He drove in there pretty hard and drove over the left rear quarter panel of the car and we got in the fence.”
With no caution flying for the incident, Earnhardt did his best to keep the car out of traffic and out of trouble. However, on Lap 75 Earnhardt once again caught the outside wall in Turn 1. Earnhardt kept the car along the wall and the fourth caution of the day flew.
Quiet on the radio, Earnhardt brought the car to the attention of his team led by crew chief Greg Ives. They went to work changing tires and pulling out the fender damage. When the race restarted, Earnhardt was 37th, one lap down to the leaders.
Earnhardt took the wave-around to get one of his laps back, but when the race went back to green with 145 laps to go, he hit the wall again after running through oil and was forced to come back to pit road under green.
Catching a bit of a break when the caution flew just laps later, Earnhardt culd not take advantage when he said he hit the wall harder than any time throughout the day. As a result, Earnhardt fell to 35th on the leaderboard, three laps down to the leaders when the race restarted on Lap 200.
Finishing the day 28th, Earnhardt fell to 11th in the Chase standings, 19 points behind the cutoff in eight.
After the race, Earnhardt -- like many drivers -- expressed frustration about NASCAR not cleaning the oil along the high line late in the race.
“We all hit the wall. I hit the wall, then the 2 (Brad Keselowski) hit the wall, then we ran another lap, I pitted and a bunch of other guys hit the wall. There was oil down there. It wasn’t Speedy Dry,” Earnhardt said emphatically. “I’ve raced this s--t for 20 years, I know what oil and Speedy Dry is. We hit fluid, flew in the wall freaking hard, that’s not Speedy Dry. There was oil up there.”
Last season, Earnhardt’s title hopes came to an end in the Contender Round when he hit the wall leading at Kansas Speedway, finishing 39th. Earnhardt followed that up with a 20th-place finish at Charlotte and a 31st at Talladega Superspeedway, failing to make the cut for the Elimination Round.
Heading into this weekend’s Bank of America 500, Earnhardt and Ives felt confident about their chances at the three Contender Round tracks. Given their struggles early Sunday at Charlotte, the No. 88 team will have to show up in a big way at Kansas and Talladega in the next two weeks to keep their title hopes alive.
Now facing an uphill battle to advance to the Elimination Round of the Chase, Earnhardt feels he has nothing to lose over the next two races.
“We can be aggressive, go to Kansas and run hard. When we’re in the top 10 (in points) or just inside the bubble, you don’t run the high side so hard, so aggressive. You might not run the whole race as aggressive. In this race today, if I didn’t have the Chase to worry about, I probably would’ve went to the high side a lot earlier with a lot more aggression and drove the s--t out of the car. But you don’t want to hit the wall and make a mistake, so you don’t do it. You drive careful.
“At Kansas you can run the top and I like running the top there and I think we can be fast there,” he said. “Now I don’t have to worry about skinning the side off it and knocking us out of the Chase. We’re out of it. It’s our turn to claw back in, and we’ll try.”
Earnhardt was not the only Hendrick Motorsports car to struggle in the opening segments of the race. Jeff Gordon struggled with the handling of the No. 24 Chevrolet running just inside the top 20. Jimmie Johnson had a strong car throughout much of the race, but had an engine issue and fell out of the race after 257 laps, finishing 39th.
And Kasey Kahne had the worst outing of the four-car organization. Kahne hit the wall on two separate occasions, finally bringing out the caution on Lap 61. With heavy right side damage, Kahne pulled his car behind the wall and was officially listed out of the race just before the 100-lap mark.