Junior Nation is still waiting for a win, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. continued his above-average post-season with a fourth-place finish yesterday at Phoenix International Raceway that strengthened his grip on a Top-5 spot in the Sprint Cup championship.
Earnhardt encountered early problems on Lap 63, when he was forced to pit from sixth place under green for a loose wheel. That put him one lap down, but he was able to get the “lucky dog” free pass after a Lap 131 incident involving Dave Blaney brought out the caution.
After that, Earnhardt would race into the Top 10 as the race hit its middle stages, which saw the scoring pylon repeatedly scrambled through pit strategies. He had been cycled back to seventh by the Lap 282 caution for debris, and following the final restart with 25 laps to go, he peeled off several positions before finishing fourth after Carl Edwards ran out of gas.
“It was a good car – we knew it in practice,” said Earnhardt, who collected his third Top-5 finish in his last four races and seventh Top-10 in his last eight.
“Since this Chase has started, we have been quick. If we don’t win Homestead [next week], hopefully we have that speed when we show up in Daytona [in February].
“I have to give credit to the team. They are working hard and just because we aren’t in the title hunt doesn’t mean they have given up. They work just as hard as anyone out there.”
Earnhardt remains fifth in the Chase, but saw his gap over sixth-place Jeff Gordon grow to 17 points after Gordon logged a 14th-place result in Phoenix.
He also stands a chance to rise even further in the standings this Sunday at Homestead, as Kyle Busch only sits six points ahead of him in fourth position (Busch finished seventh in yesterday’s race).