When Dale Earnhardt Jr. had his engine blow up on him during the Chase for the Sprint Cup opener at Chicagoland Speedway in September, the focus for himself and his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team shifted from battling for a championship to gunning for race wins after coming up empty in the regular season.
Since that time, things have come around nicely for NASCAR’s most popular driver. While he hasn’t been able to get that elusive win, Earnhardt was able to log his third runner-up finish in the last six races (along with his sixth Top-10 finish in the last seven) at today’s AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
“The Chicago deal is regrettable – we’d love to go back and do that over again,” Earnhardt said in post-race. “But as soon as that happened, we really changed our approach and it was more about trying to win a race. Winning a race would really lift all the team’s spirits.
“You work all season long not to go winless and not to getting to Victory Lane. So I know how much the guys want the win on the team. So that’s what we’re working for now.”
Earnhardt credited today’s result to his team’s test late last month as Texas, as well as the adjustments made during the race by crew chief Steve Letarte. Additionally, Earnhardt noted that track conditions toward the end of the race were similar to what he and HMS had encountered during the test.
Still, neither he nor anybody else could mount a challenge to race winner and new Chase for the Sprint Cup leader Jimmie Johnson.
“We gambled a little bit in the late stages of this race short-pitting and getting a lot of track position, and we had a fast enough car to keep it, but the 48 [Johnson] was in another class and nobody had anything for him,” Earnhardt admitted.
“He was just super good all through practice and in the race. I think about that a little bit. But there isn’t much you can do about it. I’ve got two races to go and we’d love to get a win in one of them and continue to have a good run here in the Chase.”