After derailing at Texas, Dale Earnhardt Jr. gets back on track with career-best finish at Darlington

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It wasn’t a win, but after last Monday’s embarrassing mistake and last-place finish at Texas, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will gladly take his second-place finish in Saturday night’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

While Earnhardt had the lead with two laps to go, Kevin Harvick pulled ahead just before the white flag flew and then held on for his second win of the season and first-ever win at Darlington.

But there was no shame in Earnhardt finishing second, which was a career-high for him at the so-called Track Too Tough to Tame.

In fact, Earnhardt was a little surprised that he wound up doing so well, earning his third runner-up finish this season to go along with his season-opening win in the Daytona 500.

“We really weren’t a top-two car, we were probably the third-best car, fourth-best car, depending on where Jimmie (Johnson) and Jeff Gordon were,” Earnhardt said. “They were pretty good, a little better than us most of the time.

“But the 4 (Harvick) was the best car, I thought. Jeff was pretty good (too).”

Earnhardt was pushed to the lead by Harvick on the final restart, getting by Johnson, and then Harvick worked his way around to the front and never looked back.

“We got some good restarts at the end,” Earnhardt said. “The outside line was real bad about spinning the tires, and Jimmie hadn’t been up there and didn’t really know that, so he chose the outside on them restarts and I knew I had a great shot at getting the lead from him.

“We got going, he spun his tires real bad, the 4 got to pushing me a little bit and we got the lead, and that felt pretty good leading the race. But the 4 just had new tires. We had 30-something laps on ours left, and it just wasn’t going to get the job done with him right there on us.

“I’m going to probably wish I would have run the top in 3 and 4 coming to the white and made him try to pass us on the bottom, but I’m pretty sure he was going to get around us somehow.”

Indeed, while most other drivers took just two tires (mostly right side) on the final caution, Harvick took four. It was a gutsy call, but also proved to be a race-winning call.

To come so close to winning, however, even though it was his best finish ever at Darlington, somewhat irked Earnhardt, too.

“It’s a little disappointing to come that close because I know I don’t really run that well here and the opportunities to win are going to be very few compared to other tracks,” he said. “It hurts a little bit to come that close because we worked so hard to try to win races.

“Running second is great but nobody is going to really remember that. But we’re proud of it, and Steve (crew chief Steve Letarte), I know he’s very proud. They did a great job giving me a really good car to be able to run that well here. The car was phenomenal. Really proud of those guys’ effort. Even though they know where my shortcomings are, they worked their guts out to try to get us the best.

“Sometimes if I admittedly say this isn’t my best track, it’s easy to sort of back off, but those guys really push the pedal and give me everything I can to give me the best chance to finish as best I can.  They did that tonight.  That was a great example of that.”

NASCAR now takes its annual break for next week’s Easter holiday, but there will be little downtime for Earnhardt and his crew. After dropping five places following last week’s last-place finish at Texas, Earnhardt regained two spots in the standings, leaving Darlington in fourth-place.

There’s still plenty of work to do to get back to where he was earlier in the season and again before the Texas debacle, leading the standings.

“I think we’re really got some great performance for our team,” Earnhardt said. “We just need to look at our competition, try to understand what we’re seeing and where are some areas where we can improve.

“There’s some spots where we can improve and get better, but we run second at one of our worst tracks tonight, so our performance is there. We’ve got the cars, we seem to be on the leading edge of trying to learn these new rules and trying to understand what’s going on. A lot of guys middle of the pack are scrambling with their setups. We seem to be on a path and setting a pattern with what we’re doing, and it seems to be working.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

IMSA: Heavy news week leading into Thanksgiving holiday

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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After the weekend and before the Thanksgiving holiday this week, IMSA has rolled out a number of announcements itself, while IMSA could be set for further announcements in the weeks to come starting next week.

Here’s a roundup:

QUALIFYING AT ROAR SET FOR PIT POSITIONS, GARAGES AT ROLEX 24

Here are key notes from IMSA’s Monday release about how Sunday at the Roar Before the Rolex 24 will take on a greater significance:

  • The pit boxes and garages each team will use during the Rolex 24 will now be allocated based on fastest qualifying times set during Sunday’s third and final day of the Roar. Each of the three WeatherTech Championship classes – Prototype (P), GT Le Mans (GTLM) and GT Daytona (GTD) – will have a 15-minute qualifying session on Sunday, Jan. 7.
  • The fastest-qualifying Prototype will receive the first pit box on pit lane starting at pit-in and also will be assigned to the first garage in the Prototype section of the WeatherTech Championship garage. The fastest GTD car will receive the second pit box on pit lane and the first garage in the GTD section, with the fastest GTLM car receiving the third pit box and the first garage in the GTLM section.
  • New for 2018 – P and GTLM will pit together under a full course yellow. Therefore, to give class separation in the pits, P and GTLM teams are assigned pit boxes to ensure they are separated by a GTD Team.

This, coupled with the addition of the first IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda one-hour, 45-minute race with two drivers, will make this a more shaken up Roar.

REGS, REGS, GET YOUR REGS

IMSA has released the Sporting and Technical Regulations for 2018 this week. The aforementioned note about P and GTLM teams pitting together is a change from P and Prototype Challenge (PC) class cars pitting together, with GTLM and GTD together as it was this year.

Restart procedures changed will see P cars moved to the lead ahead of GT cars; this created confusion at times throughout 2017 as sometimes another class leader in PC, GTLM or GTD had been the first car behind a pace car.

Each team will be limited to one car change in-season only, subject to “force majeure.”

On the off chance a driver is racing in two cars, his or her maximum drive time will be counted cumulatively between the two cars.

There are other tweaks, of course, but most are largely procedural or within the fine print.

RATINGS REVEALED

The good news with IMSA going down from four classes to three for 2018 is that only one designated pro-am class remains in the form of GT Daytona, which requires at least one Silver (or Bronze) full-season driver alongside the designated pro. Those sneaky “Super Silvers” remain an invaluable asset for using his or her results to their benefit.

The FIA released the initial driver ratings for 2018 this week with a few changes, some young pros going up from Silver to Gold and others getting their request to get downgraded from Gold to Silver approved. Drivers have a couple weeks to appeal if they so desire.

Here’s your friendly reminder of what drivers can be in what GTD cars for the first two races at Daytona and Sebring:

  • Daytona (5 drivers max): GTD: In any nominated two (2) or three (3) Driver combination, a maximum of one (1) Platinum or Gold rated Driver is permitted. In any nominated four (4) or five (5) Driver combination, a maximum of one (1) Platinum and (1) Gold rated Driver are permitted or a maximum of (2) Gold Drivers.
  • Sebring (4 drivers max): GTD: In any nominated two (2) or three (3) Driver combination, a maximum of one (1) Platinum or Gold rated Driver is permitted. In any nominated four (4) Driver combination, a maximum of one (1) Platinum and (1) Gold rated Driver are permitted or a maximum of (2) Gold Drivers.

MAZDA KEEPS ON TESTING, CLOSES ON ANNOUNCEMENTS

The Los Angeles Auto Show, held after Thanksgiving, is a likely landing spot for Mazda Team Joest to reveal, officially, its revised “Evo” version of the Mazda RT24-P and its driver lineup for the 2018 season. While most of the Prototype class lineups (DPi and LMP2-spec cars) have been revealed, Mazda’s has been an exception. In the interim, not long after its Daytona test late last month, they’ve also been testing at Sebring.

FROM SPACE CENTER TO DOWN UNDER

Jordan Taylor undertook testing of a different kind not long ago at, of all places, the Kennedy Space Center. One of this year’s Prototype class champions was undertaking a straight line test in his No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R. Taylor being Taylor, the moment couldn’t pass without him winning at social media (see third tweet).

Taylor goes from down a long runway to down under, visiting his first Virgin Australia Supercars Championship race this weekend at its season finale in Newcastle.

‘MAKING OF A CHAMPION’ PIECES ROLL OUT

The fourth installment of IMSA’s “making of a champion” series highlights Jordan Taylor, who co-drove with brother Ricky to the Prototype class championship this year. These two are part of four done by IMSA so far, along with Pato O’Ward (PC) and Christina Nielsen (GTD). More should follow in the coming weeks.

SPEAKING OF CHAMPS, HINDMAN, AGOSTINI, PRESTIGE WIN LAMBORGHINI WORLD FINAL

The Lamborghini Super Trofeo World Final was held last weekend at the Imola circuit in Italy and the American Prestige Performance team won the World Final overall, with co-drivers Trent Hindman and Riccardo Agostini.

The World Final brings together teams from North America, Europe and Asia that campaign the spec Lamborghini Huracán LP 620-2 in Super Trofeo regional competition. Hindman and Agostini got the weekend off on the right foot by winning the North American championship first, then followed it up at the World Final itself to topple all other domestic and international entries.

You might remember we profiled Hindman last month, as the 22-year-old’s star in the sports car world is clearly on the rise.

Somehow, someway, at the end of the day today we received the title 2017 Lamborghini Super Trofeo World Champions. Race 2 was not perfect and much more nerve racking than we would have hoped but fortunately in the end the job was done. I am honored to be sharing this with @rickyagostini as well as the entire @prestigeperfctr @waynetaylorracing team and I thank them for their incredible effort all year. With this result, we are the first ever American team to win the Lamborghini Super Trofeo World Championship overall. 3/4 overall wins along with the Super Trofeo North America and World titles marks the end of a successful 2017 campaign. Back to reality tomorrow. Thank you all for following us along on this incredible journey.

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