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.

Toyota No. 8 car wins the 24 Hours of Le Mans for third consecutive year

24 Hours of Le Mans
JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER/AFP via Getty Images
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LE MANS, France — Toyota Gazoo’s No. 8 car comfortably won the 24 Hours of Le Mans by five laps Sunday to secure a third straight victory in the prestigious endurance race.

It was also a third consecutive win for Swiss driver Sebastien Buemi and Japan’s Kazuki Nakajima driving. Brendon Hartley was the other driver, having replaced two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso.

Buemi and Hartley sat on the side of the car as Nakajima drove toward the podium. Hartley won for a second time after tasting success with the Porsche LMP Team in 2017 before an unhappy season in Formula One.

The Swiss team’s Rebellion No. 1 featured American driver Gustavo Menezes and Brazilian Bruno Senna – the nephew of late F1 great Ayrton Senna.

It finished one lap ahead of Toyota Gazoo’s No. 7, with Rebellion’s No. 3 finishing in fourth place.

For much of the race it looked like Toyota’s No. 7 would win after leading comfortably from pole position. But late into the night the car encountered an engine problem and the 30-minute stop in the stands proved costly.

The race was first held in 1923. A total of 252,500 spectators attended in 2019, but there were none this year when the race started three months late because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“We miss the fans,” New Zealander Hartley said. “I look forward to seeing all the fans again.”

In other divisions:

United Autosports won the LMP2 division with the entry of Filipe Albuquerque, Paul Di Resta and Phil Hanson.

–In LMGTE Pro, the victory was claimed by Aston Martin Vantage AMR of Maxime Martin, Alex Lynn and Harry Tincknell (who drives for Mazda in the DPi division of IMSA).

–TF Sport won the LMGTE Am class.

The Toyota No. 7 took pole after former F1 driver Kamui Kobayashi narrowly edged out the Rebellion No. 1 team in qualifying.

In damp and humid conditions Mike Conway got away cleanly from the start, while Senna held off Buemi.

After nearly seven hours, Toyota’s No. 8 fell back after a 10-minute stop in the stands to fix a brake-cooling problem on Kazuki Nakajima’s car. Rebellion’s No. 1, driven by Frenchman Norman Nato, took advantage to move into second place behind Toyota’s No. 7.

Then came the decisive moment at 2:40 a.m. as the No. 7 – also featuring Argentine Jose Maria Lopez – encountered a turbo problem. When the car came back out it was back in fourth.

“We had a few problems early in the race,” Nakajima said. “Later they had a bigger issue than us.”

Rebellion’s No. 1 encountered a problem on the hood at around 9 a.m. and the change took six minutes, allowing the Rebellion No. 3 (Nathanael Berthon-Louis Deletraz-Romain Dumas) to close the gap.

It was becoming a tight battle between the two Rebellion cars behind Toyota’s No. 8.

At 12 p.m. Rebellion No. 3 with Dumas behind the wheel was only one second ahead of No. 1 driven by Menezes. Then both cars came in for a driver change with Deletraz swapping for Dumas on a lengthy stop, and Nato for Menezes as Rebellion No. 1 suddenly moved ahead of its team rival.

Dumas, a winner in 2016 with Porsche, appeared unhappy at the strategy decision to bring his car in first and the length of the stop. There were tense explanations in the team garage.

Colombian Tatiana Calderon, an F1 test driver with Alfa Romeo, was in the Richard Mille Racing Team in the LMP2 category. She was joined by German Sophia Florsch – an F3 driver – and Dutchwoman Beitske Visser. They placed ninth out of 24 in their category.