Chase Capsules: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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88 – Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
Crew Chief: Steve Letarte
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Best Finish: 3rd (2003)
Chase History: 7th Chase Appearance, Best finish of 5th in 2004, 2006 and 2013

Regular Season Recap: Beginning with his huge win in the season-opening Daytona 500 and his two wins at Pocono, Dale Earnhardt Jr. already has enjoyed his most successful season (and total of wins) since 2004. And there’s still 10 races remaining. Wins are great, but it’s been the consistency that has separated Junior this year from year’s past. And with the exception of just one week when he dropped to sixth, he’s fluctuated between first and fifth place in the season standings. But Junior isn’t done by any stretch. He can easily win Saturday at Richmond and perhaps grab another win or two in the Chase. Until he proves otherwise, this very well could be Earnhardt’s greatest season ever.

Jerry’s Take: An argument can be made that this has – to date – been Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s best season yet in Sprint Cup racing.

Sure, he had a career-best six wins in the first year of the Chase (2004), but starting with his win in the season-opening Daytona 500, Earnhardt has appeared more motivated to win that elusive first championship than he ever has.

He has more incentive, as well. First, this is crew chief Steve Letarte’s final season with Junior before becoming a full-time NASCAR analyst on NBC telecasts in 2015. Also, Earnhardt turns 40 next month (where has the time gone). He knows he’s already begun the downhill slide on his career.

If he’s ever to win a Sprint Cup championship, this likely will be the best opportunity he’ll ever have.

Chris’s Take: This has been building over the last year for Earnhardt, who served notice that 2014 would be a strong season for him thanks to a great 2013 Chase following his engine failure at Chicagoland.

Now, as this year’s post-season looms, he and his rabid fan base are brimming with hope that this will be the year. And why shouldn’t they be?

Junior has been in the lead pack almost all the way, and the 88 team as a whole (including outgoing crew chief Steve Letarte) is as cohesive a unit as you’ll find in the garage. I’d be surprised if these guys didn’t make it to Homestead with a chance at the Cup.

Tony’s Take: A revitalized, focused Dale Earnhardt Jr. has emerged throughout the entirety of the 2014 season and is in the best position possible to capture his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title. It would be a fitting cap to a year when he and crew chief Steve Letarte are at the end of their stint together.

Problem is, lately, Junior and the No. 88 team haven’t clicked nearly as well as they did in the first half of the year. The qualifying needs to improve. Simple ninth to 12th place finishes on race day won’t get the job done. With only one top five in the last eight races, Junior has fallen behind in the Hendrick pecking order, if not the standings themselves.

He should be able to advance through the Challenger and Contender rounds easily, provided the finishes pick up. But advancing from Eliminator through to the finale at Homestead may be a greater challenge. Right now, it’s hard to see three of the four Hendrick drivers able to fight for a title at Homestead, and Junior will need to recapture that early season form if he wants to be in with a shot.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Career Statistics at Chase Tracks
Chicagoland (1.5 mile) – One win, 3 Top-5s, 5 Top-10s in 13 starts
New Hampshire (1 mile) – Zero wins, 7 Top-5s, 13 Top-10s in 30 starts
Dover (1 mile) – One win, 6 Top-5s, 11 Top-10s in 29 starts
Kansas (1.5 mile) – Zero wins, 2 Top-5s, 8 Top-10s in 16 starts
Charlotte (1.5 mile) – Zero wins, 5 Top-5s, 10 Top-10s in 29 starts
Talladega (2.66 mile) – Five wins, 10 Top-5s, 14 Top-10s in 29 starts
Martinsville (half-mile) – Zero wins, 11 Top-5s, 16 Top-10s in 29 starts
Texas (1.5-mile) – One win, 4 Top-5s, 13 Top-10s in 24 starts
Phoenix (1 mile) – Two wins, 7 Top-5s, 11 Top-10s in 24 starts
Homestead-Miami (1.5 mile) – One win, 1 Top-5s, 2 Top-10s in 14 starts

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Mercedes, Ferrari go conservative on Austrian GP tire picks

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Pirelli has confirmed all 20 Formula 1 drivers’ tire picks for next weekend’s Austrian Grand Prix at the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg, with most opting to stack up on ultra-softs.

As it does for every grand prix, Pirelli will bring three compounds to Austria next week, electing for the softest possible combination of ultra-soft, super-soft and soft tires.

In the regular pre-race release of each driver’s tire picks, Pirelli revealed that Force India, McLaren and Red Bull have gone down the most aggressive routes, stacking up on the ultra-soft tire.

Title contenders Mercedes and Ferrari have gone down a more conservative route, favoring additional sets of the super-soft compound.

Ferrari drivers Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen will take seven sets of ultra-softs to Spielberg, while Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas will have eight sets at their disposal through the weekend.

Graham Rahal survives Road America to finish eighth

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Graham Rahal and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing faced a roller coaster of a race during the Kohler Grand Prix at Road America on Sunday.

He was a rocket off the initial start, jumping from sixth on the grid up to fourth exiting turn 1, but was almost immediately ordered to surrender a position for blocking. He quickly slipped back to sixth, and then began plummeting down the order as he battled an oversteer condition that saw his car chew through its rear tires more quickly than others.

Forced to abandon the planned three-stop strategy, he and the No. 15 Gehl Honda team switched to a four-stop plan that saw him drop well outside the top ten at times.

However, they kept plugging away and rebounded nicely in the second half of the race to eventually finish in eighth. While he would have liked to finish higher up the order, Rahal knows that he and the team got everything they could out of it.

“The car was a handful today. I knew about five laps in that I didn’t have the pace for a three-stop strategy,” Rahal revealed post-race. “We tried as best we could to work with what we had during the race and overcome it. I would have obviously liked to have finished better, but eighth is about as good as we could do today. We struggled with a very loose race car all weekend and just couldn’t put a dent in the problem. We worked awfully hard but just missed it this weekend.”

The eighth-place finish keeps Rahal in the championship hunt. Rahal now sits seventh in the standings, 11 points behind fifth-place Josef Newgarden and 72 behind championship leader Scott Dixon.

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

Ed Jones continues steady run with seventh at Road America

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Dale Coyne Racing’s Ed Jones has made waves in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season with a string of solid performances that belie his rookie status.

And Sunday’s Kohler Grand Prix at Road America was no different.

The 22-year-old battled an oversteering car most of the weekend at Road America, and had to navigate a little carnage late in the race as Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay both fell through the field with front wing problems.

However, Jones weathered all storms to finish an impressive seventh, his fifth finish inside the top 10 this year, and his best finish since his third place at the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade MotorOil.

“It was a really tough race,” Jones said of the effort. “We had a loose car yesterday. It was loose, but fast, for qualifying, and today again the car was really loose. I was hanging on the whole race, but the team had some good pit stops and we were able to move up.

“Obviously, the strategy was pretty similar to everyone else. Everyone was aggressive out there. It was hard racing but we came out with a seventh place and we moved up a little bit in the points.”

The seventh-place run sees Jones maintain his position in the top ten in the championship. He currently sits tenth in the standings, three points ahead of Chip Ganassi Racing’s Max Chilton.

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

Vilander replaces Bird at AF Corse for Nurburgring WEC round

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AF Corse has confirmed that Toni Vilander will race the No. 71 Ferrari 488 GTE in next month’s FIA World Endurance Championship round at the Nürburgring in place of Sam Bird, who is tied up with Formula E commitments in New York.

Vilander currently races full-time in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship with Risi Competizione, and appeared at the 24 Hours of Le Mans two weeks ago.

The Finn won the WEC GT drivers’ title in 2014 and last raced full-time in the series in 2015, but will return at the Nürburgring in place of Bird, who confirmed on Monday that he would be prioritizing his Formula E commitments on the July 16 weekend.

Vilander is relishing the opportunity to race alongside Davide Rigon in the No. 71 Ferrari, and is eager to bounce back from an early retirement at Le Mans.

“I’m happy to be able to return to the FIA WEC with the 488 GTE of AF Corse team. This is my chance to cancel the disappointment of the 24 Hours of Le Mans as soon as possible,” Vilander said.

“Car number 71 is in the top places of the championship standings, and I will give all I have to achieve the best possible result at Nürburgring, to help Ferrari in the manufacturers’ championship and Davide Rigon in the drivers’ ranking.”