Somber-looking Dale Earnhardt Jr.: 10th-place finish just isn’t good enough anymore

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. looked like he had just gone through the roughest workout of his career.

When TNT cameras caught up with him after his 10th-place finish in Sunday’s Camping World RV Sales 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Earnhardt’s face was not only red, he seemed short of breath, looked significantly frustrated and exasperated – and appeared almost on the verge of tears.

Which is odd because with his 10th-place finish, Junior officially clinched his berth for the upcoming revamped and expanded Chase for the Sprint Cup.

“That was frustrating,” Earnhardt said with a somber look on his face. “That was the hardest I’ve ever worked for a 10th-place finish.

“It’s been a real frustrating weekend, to be honest. The guys worked real hard, Steve (crew chief Steve Letarte) and the engineers did their best to get the car more competitive, but just to be lacking that much speed against a lot of guys and I had to drive so perfect every lap, it was just so frustrating.”

With wins in the season-opening Daytona 500 and last month at Pocono, Earnhardt can take solace that there’s no way he can miss the Chase now.

But still, Earnhardt did not take Sunday’s finish easily. It might be because a 10th-place finish in the fall Chase return to New Hampshire very well might not be good enough to advance to the second or third elimination rounds of the 10-race playoff.

“I don’t know, man, I wish we were better,” Earnhardt said. “We’re going to have to come back here (in the fall Chase race) and run better to have a shot at the Chase. But, we’ll keep working. Tenth-place: I’m really disappointed.”

At the same time, Earnhardt’s demeanor and appearance said a lot about how far he’s come and how much he’s grown this season as a Sprint Cup driver.

Whereas in many of his previous 14 Sprint Cup seasons, he’d have been happy to have just finished in the top 15 or 20.

But if he’s not contending for a win now, it’s simply not good enough for Junior.

“I remember when we used to like these (10th-place finishes),” Earnhardt said.

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IndyCar 2017 driver review: Ed Carpenter

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MotorSportsTalk continues its annual review of the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers that raced in 2017. The 2017 season behind the wheel was better for Ed Carpenter than either of the last two years, but still wasn’t ideal results-wise in his six oval starts.

Ed Carpenter, No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet

  • 2016: 25th Place (5 Starts), Best Finish 18th, Best Start 5th, 0 Top-5, 0 Top-10, 1 Lap Led, 11.2 Avg. Start, 21.8 Avg. Finish
  • 2017: 22nd Place (6 Starts), Best Finish 7th, Best Start 2nd, 0 Top-5, 1 Top-10, 5 Laps Led, 11.3 Avg. Start, 12.3 Avg. Finish

Ed Carpenter’s 2017 season was largely one of frustration, both behind the wheel and as a team owner.

While a respectable turnaround in results occurred – Carpenter finished between seventh and 12th in five of his six oval races after a nightmare season of ending 18th or worse in each of his 2016 starts – this is still not what he sets out to strive for in the races he does. Lost opportunities loomed larger than any official result he or the Ed Carpenter Racing team achieved.

Carpenter and new teammate JR Hildebrand, in for the departed Josef Newgarden, dominated preseason testing in Phoenix but Hildebrand could only muster third in the race, Carpenter a season-best seventh. Then at Indianapolis, Carpenter (second) and Hildebrand (sixth) flew the flag for Chevrolet in qualifying and practice pace, but they fell to 11th and 16th on race day owing to a front-wing change and late-race penalty for passing before a restart.

Both drivers got collected in incidents at Texas. Hildebrand qualified and finished a season-best second in Iowa but that result came only after the ECR crew rebuilt his car from a crash in practice. Then Carpenter had a practice crash in Pocono and despite a rapid rebuild, they missed the clock to qualify by mere minutes and were unable to do so. Carpenter’s spin on a slick Gateway track at the start of the race sent him over Will Power’s nose assembly in one of the scarier looking incidents of the year, although fortunately he was OK.

In a similar refrain as we often write, it’s not that Carpenter’s lost his ability to drive and he remains one of the series’ savviest and smartest people in the paddock. There have been a lot of extenuating circumstances of late, and it almost felt as though this team had “empty nest” components. Since September, Carpenter has had to secure his team’s future with a move away from its Speedway, Ind. shop, line up Spencer Pigot for a full-time drive replacing Hildebrand in the No. 21 car, find a new road/street course driver in the No. 20 car, and manage both driving and owning himself.