Dale Earnhardt Jr. wants Brickyard 400 win, but forget about him doing the ‘double’

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INDIANAPOLIS – Dale Earnhardt Jr. doesn’t care about Sunday’s chance to become one of the few drivers to win the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 in the same year.

All Junior wants is to get that Brickyard 400 trophy for the first time in his career, something that has eluded him for nearly 15 years now.

“I’d love to win here,” Earnhardt said Saturday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “This is such a historic racetrack regardless of whether we won Daytona or not. I really wouldn’t pair the two together as an accomplishment. But I wouldn’t think about it, I guess, like that.

“Just winning here alone would be tremendous. … This place just has so much history. The story of how this track came about and how it almost ended up being history in itself during the war. It’s just amazing what’s gone on here. I would love to win here and hope to be able to accomplish that at some point in my career.”

Much has been said about how this is Earnhardt’s final season with crew chief Steve Letarte, who will leave Hendrick Motorsports at season’s end to become a NASCAR on NBC TV analyst in 2015.

Winning the Daytona 500 was a great kickoff to their final season together, and adding the first Brickyard 400 title would only further enhance how special of a season this has been thus far – and one Earnhardt hopes become even more special during the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

“Yeah, I mean, any race I win with Steve this year is very special because of his last year,” Earnhardt said. “So yeah, we’ll take anywhere, we’ll take a win anywhere.

“He’s one of the guys that’s one of the best on the box when it comes to strategy, and this style of race and the way the tires are going to play into that. This is right in his wheelhouse. I think he’s going to give us a great opportunity.”

But Earnhardt is also realistic. Not only does he have a mediocre past record at Indianapolis (14 starts, just one top-5 and three other top-10 finishes), he also had a disappointing qualifying effort Saturday (will start 23rd).

When asked if he thinks could be his best chance to win at Indianapolis, Earnhardt was honestly blunt.

“No, not really,” he said. “I think I’ve had some pretty good cars here in the past. I’ve had chances to win in the past and didn’t even know it.

“… I guess my point is we’ve had good cars in the past and just didn’t do the strategy just right. Somebody did it better than us or somebody made it on fuel and won the race or what have you, but we’ve had some good cars here.”

While Earnhardt would love to check a Brickyard 400 win off his bucket list, don’t look for him to follow Kurt Busch’s lead and attempt the “double” of racing in the Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 in the same day.

“I don’t think I would,” Earnhardt said. “I know it’s a lot of preparation, and I think that it takes a certain mentality, a certain style of person. I think that Kurt has that mentality, has that ability to really get down and want to take on something like that.

“He’s sort of in a situation in his career where he can sort of juggle all those things. We’ve got so much going on, and I really never aspired to drive open wheel cars. I do follow the series and have some drivers I pull for, but I was always a stock car guy and just always wanted to race short tracks and bang on fenders.

“But I do have a lot of respect for what he did, and it was a great joy to cheer him on and support him. We all, everyone in the garage, wanted him to do well and to see him do well and accomplish what he did was a great thing I think for both series. So definitely it drew a lot of attention to both series.

“I enjoyed that, and I like seeing drivers do that, but I’m going to turn 40 next year, or this year actually, so I think I’ve got so much going on that I’d rather not pile that on to my plate.”

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IndyCar drivers say Thermal Club could host race after successful opening day to test

IndyCar Thermal race
Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images
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THERMAL, Calif. – The “motorsports country club” passed the first test (figuratively and literally) with NTT IndyCar Series drivers pleased enough to proclaim The Thermal Club as race-eligible after its debut.

Though there were a few minor incidents on the 17-turn, 3.067-mile permanent road course east of Palm Springs in Southern California’s Coachella Valley, there was no significant damage for the 27 full-time cars that turned 1,119 laps Thursday.

Perhaps more importantly, drivers seemed to enjoy the ride around the track, which is unlike anything on the current circuit.

“I would love to race here,” said Chip Ganassi Racing rookie Marcus Armstrong, who posted the 10th-quickest time (1 minute, 39.9077 seconds) in the No. 11 Dallara-Honda that he will race on street and road courses after coming from the F2 Series. “I think it’s awesome. Would have to do a lot of neck training prior to the race because it’s much like a European circuit, quite demanding on the neck, towards the end of the lap anyway.

PRACTICE SPEEDS: First session l Second session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“I think it’s cool. Very flowing, banked corners, banked high-speed corners. In terms of racing, it could be potentially not a lot of overtaking. You’d have to commit hard (in) maybe Turn 1. It wouldn’t be the easiest place to overtake. As a whole facility and circuit, it’s very enjoyable.”

Juncos Hollinger Racing No. 77 Chevrolet driver Callum Ilott, another F2 veteran who is entering his second year in IndyCar, was seventh fastest. Ilott said Thermal would “set a standard really of what we want to be doing with this series.

“It’s really, really high level, high tech,” said Ilott, whose rookie teammate Agustin Canapino went off course twice but incurred no major trouble. “As a circuit, yeah, it’s got a little bit different corners. I think the overtaking — we’ll find a way, we’re IndyCar — someone always sends it down the inside. I think if we can extend the straight and get some overtaking between Turn 6 and 7. It’s definitely a great circuit to drive and good fun and a bit different to the normal winter training we get in Florida. So I like the circuit.

“I think if we could, it would be good to race here once.”

Andretti Autosport’s Colton Herta, who turned the fastest lap (1:39.3721) in his No. 26, also was optimistic despite the passing challenges.

“I think it really comes down to tire deg, what people are showing with that,” Herta said. “It will be tough to pass, right? A lot of the good braking zones, you’re coming off of high-speed corners, so it will be hard to follow.

“But you never know. I would say some of the tracks we go to would be terrible for racing, and IndyCar still puts on a great show. You never know until it’s tested and proven right or wrong.”

The possibility of adding an IndyCar race at The Thermal Club has been floated, but there would be some challenges. It likely would be a made-for-TV event given it’s a private club (and filled with multimillion-dollar homes filled with vintage cars). The test is closed to the public and open only to members and VIPs.

There also are some areas that would need to be improved, namely the galvanized steel Armco barriers that ring the track and generally are considered antiquated in motorsports.

“I think the Armco might propose a little bit of an issue,” Ilott said. “Again, it depends on what angle you’re hitting them obviously. It’s a pretty straightforward process to make it a bit safer and a bit more cushiony. I’m not in charge of that stuff. I just drive and try not to hit those things.

“I think it’s a straightforward process. To be fair, everyone has had a little moment today, spun and carried on. That’s a good start. Obviously there are anomalies, these things happen. So far, so good.”

Said Herta: For sure. It probably needs a little bit of work. They’ve already done a lot for us to come here already. It seems like if they do want to have a race here, they’re willing to put the work in and money in to upgrade the facility to make it a little bit safer for us.”

Christian Lundgaard of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing was second fastest (1:39.3767), followed by Alex Palou (1:39.3970) and Romain Grosjean (1:39.4826). Will Power was the top Chevrolet driver in fifth (1:39.5690).

Though Andretti had two of the top four times, Herta downplayed the significance other than getting reacclimated to his team.

“Just a lot of knocking the rust off,” he said. “It’s quite a long offseason without being in the car. I don’t know how much we’re really going to learn from running here. It’s really good to get the team back into it, get all the boys working again. Yeah, just get everybody back into the flow of it.

“It could be a huge shake-up when we go to St. Pete and who’s up front and who’s at the back. It is too early to tell. It’s nice just to be back in the car and get lap times down, get everybody working again.

“The track surface is very strange, very different to anything I’ve really felt in IndyCar. It’s seven first-gear corners. We don’t really have that many anywhere we go on a street course. It is quite a bit slower than our natural terrain courses. But I don’t want to be in here and dig it the whole time. It’s a fun track to drive, especially the back section. It keeps you on your toes. It doesn’t really replicate anything else that we go (race).”

The test will continue with another six-hour session Friday.