Earnhardt not going “What if?” over Chase-opening engine failure

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Seeing Dale Earnhardt Jr. once again battle for a win in tonight’s Sprint Cup season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, you couldn’t help but wonder what might have been if he hadn’t had his engine blow up in a smoky display in the September Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway.

Perhaps the majority of Junior Nation felt that way at some point as well. Earnhardt suffered a 35th-place result in the Windy City thanks to that motor, but in the final nine races, Earnhardt went: Sixth, second, eighth, 15th, second, eighth, second, fourth, and finally, third tonight in South Florida.

But while Earnhardt, in his words, “would just love to go to another race next week,” he believes the Chicagoland episode probably didn’t have much of an impact on his championship hopes.

“We didn’t win enough races in the regular season,” he said. “We didn’t win any. That was the difference. When we started the Chase, we were already in the hole a little bit to Matt. It’s too competitive. Just like the end of this race, the reason why I couldn’t get Matt is because he’s running second. The guy in second, the guy in first, they’re not going to be easy to pass.

“We just got behind in the regular season not winning enough, not doing enough to get bonus points. Those guys did. Those points are so important. If you put a good 10 races together, add them bonus points on top of it – man, you’re going to be hard to beat.”

Nonetheless, Earnhardt put together his best stretch of the season when it counted, and it paid off with a fifth-place finish in the Sprint Cup standings – his best season-ending ranking in the last seven seasons.

When asked what made the difference for him, crew chief Steve Letarte and the entire No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports squad in these final 10 races, Earnhardt insisted that he’s “asked everybody on the team at least once or twice what we’re doing different.”

According to NASCAR’s most popular driver, he was met with the response that they weren’t doing anything different.

“I really don’t know why,” he said. “I have the same feeling, like our cars are way faster. We have been more competitive…I just think the 88 team has really stepped it up. But each year, we’ve gotten better.

“When we first started working together – it’s easy to forget about all this, but when me and Steve started working together, we were working our guts out to finish in the Top 10. Each year, it’s kind of gotten easier to run a little better.”

And that should make Junior Nation eye the 2014 season with anticipation that their man will be able to fight for a championship.

Cooper solidifies PWC GT presence with Callaway Corvette

Callaway, Cooper, Gill. Photo: PWC
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Pirelli World Challenge could use a “face” of the series from a driving standpoint, and American Michael Cooper is a good candidate to fill that role for 2018.

Cooper, 27, has won PWC Touring Car, GTS and, most recently the SprintX GT titles within the series and has quickly blossomed into one of the series’ top GT stars.

It’s been a rapid rise for the Syosset, N.Y. native, entering into a world filled with series stars and champions such as Johnny O’Connell, Patrick Long, Alvaro Parente and a host of others.

But under O’Connell’s tutelage, Cooper admirably filled the rather gaping shoes vacated by Andy Pilgrim at Cadillac Racing, steering the Cadillac ATS-V.R to multiple race wins in the last two years – including a sweep of this year’s season finale weekend at Sonoma.

Cooper and Jordan Taylor were the model of consistency in SprintX this year, winning once at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and surviving contact at Circuit of The Americas to take that title.

With Cadillac withdrawing its ATS-V.R program at the end of the year though, Cooper was left a free agent for 2018. Fortunately with one door closed another opened, in the form of the GM-blessed but full Callaway Competition USA effort with its Callaway Corvette C7 GT3-R that will come Stateside next year. Cooper and Daniel Keilwitz will be in the team’s two cars for the full season; the car was fully unveiled last week at the PRI Show in Indianapolis.

The Callaway is a proven commodity in Europe but couldn’t run in the U.S. unless the path was cleared by one of GM’s factory programs to end a direct, potential head-to-head competition.

Moving from the Cadillac to the Callaway Corvette should be a natural transition, Cooper said last week.

“It worked out incredibly well that GM decided to allow Calloway to run the car in the United States and it created an opportunity for me that wouldn’t have been there otherwise,” he told NBC Sports. “I talked to a lot of other GT teams and at the end of the day, I felt like this was the best direction for me to be competitive next year and to also continue furthering my career with General Motors.”

Indeed Cooper has graduated from the Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro Z/28.R in GTS to the Cadillac and now to the Callaway Corvette. Cooper hailed the Cadillac team for what they did for his career growth.

“Working with Cadillac Racing has been instrumental in developing my abilities both on and off the track,” he said. “So I’m definitely a much more well-rounded driver now and have a lot of experience in the World Challenge GT field, so I kind of know what to expect going into that first race and going into that first corner in St. Pete.”

As noted, the car’s success in Europe means it’s a well-oiled machine by the time Reeves Callaway has worked with PWC to bring it Stateside next year. And as Cooper explained, discussions had been underway for a bit of time to ensure his presence in this car and team.

“I think the car is going to be extremely capable. It’s already won championships and races in Europe. I think, in bringing it over here, we’re going to hit the ground running straight away,” he said.

“Calloway had wanted me to come drive for them in July or August. We always kept in touch since then, and there was a lot of work trying to put together a program before they decided that they were going to do a fully fledged factory program. So once they made that decision, I think the pieces were kind of in place already, and the conversations had been had to be able to say ‘You’re going to be our guy.’”

December is late for IMSA programs to get finalized, but it’s relatively early for PWC, with the season not starting until mid-March in St. Petersburg. An extensive testing program should follow, as Callaway establishes its U.S. base and infrastructure.

“It’s definitely early for a Pirelli World Challenge program to be announced in December when we start racing in March. So that’s very good,” he said. “But, the team has a lot of work ahead of them in terms of getting infrastructure set up here in the United States, because a lot of their racing program has been in Europe. So, there will be a testing program, but they have to get the infrastructure in place first. But, we’ll be well prepared for St. Pete, I’m certain of it.

“Last year was the first year when I could sit back, kick my feet up, and know what I was doing next year. So, to be able to have everything done and be able to announce it this early on makes my life less stressful and now I can just focus on preparing myself and my team for next year.”