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.”

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Whether dinner or driving, Montoya and Cameron fast friends at Penske

Courtesy of IMSA
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Dane Cameron’s reaction to being told he’d be paired with Juan Pablo Montoya on Team Penske’s DPI Acura didn’t signal the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

“I sign my contract with (Team Penske president) Tim Cindric, and he says, ‘We’re going to put you with Montoya,’ ” Cameron told NBCSports.com, pausing to laugh. “I’m thinking ‘Did I do something wrong? Is he mad at me? Why is he giving me that guy? This is going to be a lot of work.’

“At first I wasn’t really sure what I was in for because (Montoya) definitely has a bit of a reputation. I was like, ‘Oh man, how is this going to go?’ ”

Actually, it’s gone really well.

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Entering this weekend’s season-opening Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona, Cameron and Montoya are the reigning champions of IMSA’s premier division. In their second year together, the No. 6 duo scored victories last season at Mid-Ohio, Detroit and Laguna Seca while finishing on the podium in seven consecutive events.

But it’s easy to understand why Cameron initially might have had reservations about a working relationship with Montoya.

Over a Hall of Fame career spanning more than two decades, the outspoken Colombian famous for his cutthroat indifference and swashbuckling sizzle has been embroiled in controversial rivalries with many of the world’s greatest drivers while blazing a winning trail in IndyCar, NASCAR and Formula One.

Cameron, meanwhile, is a low-key native of Sonoma, California, who is the first three-time champion of the WeatherTech Series (since the IMSA merger of 2014) but whose professional driving experience is limited nearly exclusively to sports cars.

Yet since their first conversation – Montoya called Cameron while he was driving home from signing that first contract with Penske – their rapport has been strong, and as simpatico as they are behind the wheel, they also get along famously off the track.

“We have such a good relationship,” Montoya told NBCSports.com. “It’s amazing how well we bonded. We really created a friendship. We have massive amounts of trust in each other. Whether he makes a mistake or I make a mistake, there’s no judgment. We always seem to be there for each other, and we complement each other really well.

“I like going to dinner with this guy, put it that way. That doesn’t happen often.”

Cameron said his teammate’s loose and playful style immediately was a welcome relief. During one of his first media appearances with Team Penske’s IMSA driver lineup, Cameron was nervous about maintaining the team’s well-coiffed image of professionalism.

But as Montoya and teammate Helio Castroneves traded barbs about turning gray or graining weight, Cameron suddenly felt at ease.

“Juan’s a good guy to break the ice when it’s getting a little stuffy in the room to have a little joke or make fun of Helio coloring his hair just to lighten the mood,” Cameron said of Montoya. “If things are tense, he’s good. It’s silly and childish but fun. That helped me get more comfortable for sure

“He’s probably a little more brash than I am and likes to pick on people and have some fun, but I like to enjoy myself, too. If everything’s really serious, and you’re miserable, it’s tougher to perform in the car. If you’re enjoying yourself and surrounding yourself with the right people in a good environment, then things come together a lot easier.”

Cameron and Montoya never met before joining Team Penske’s relaunched sports car program two years ago. The team used the same formula for filling each of its Acuras: Pairing an IMSA champion with an IndyCar star.

Ricky Taylor and Castroneves were aligned in the No. 7, and Montoya was teamed with Cameron, who had won the 2016 DP title with Action Express Racing.

The No. 6 Acura in testing for the Rolex 24. Juan Pablo Montoya, Dane Cameron and Simon Pagenaud will share the car this weekend at Daytona (courtesy of IMSA).

“With (Cameron) winning the championship, we knew Montoya would have respect for him,” Cindric said. “We saw pretty quickly that (Montoya) could learn from (Cameron) in this form of racing. It’s been healthy. We’ve never had any problems with them.

“It’s good to see them have success and Montoya get another championship. He was so close to the IndyCar (title) with us, it was good to get one with him.”

Montoya, a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, and Cameron will be paired with another Indy 500 champion at Daytona as Simon Pagenaud joins their Rolex 24 entry for the second consecutive season. Montoya and Cameron still are seeking their first endurance victory, and Pagenaud bring the resume of a former American Le Mans Series champion.

The trio will split the driving over 24 hours while also compromising on myriad details, such as the positioning of the seat and pedals. Hitting a setup that can suit each driver’s style with optimized speed is among the biggest challenges in sports car racing.

“You have to find the right balance between standing up for what you really want and what you really need so you can perform and then maybe give up here and there on certain things that aren’t bothering you,” Cameron said. “When you find the right partnership and the right guy to be with, it really can push the program to the next level.”

Said Montoya: “It’s crazy that we always want the same things out of the car. We keep helping each other. And it’s funny because when I’m really happy with the car, he struggles a bit. And when he’s really happy with the car, I struggle a bit. And we kind of found that middle ground where we know it’s good. I can make it work here, and he can make it work there.”

Each has their own track-specific strengths, too. Montoya is a three-time Rolex 24 winner who excels on the Daytona road course, where Cameron still is seeking his first win. It’s the opposite at Sebring International Raceway, where Montoya says, “I know I suck, and Dane’s freaking unbelievable.”

Such brutal honesty is part of what makes Montoya a good teammate.

“He just wants to have fun and drive race cars and really isn’t into drama,” Cameron said. “Sometimes he can’t bite his tongue, but that makes everyone love him at the same time. We just found a really great way to have fun at the racetrack and become closer friends away from the track.

“He’s just the right guy.”

Juan Pablo Montoya (left) and Dane Cameron celebrated after winning at Laguna Seca last year (courtesy of IMSA).