‘Vacation’ is over for Dale Earnhardt Jr.; now it’s time to get to work in the Chase

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. started the 2014 season with a win in the Daytona 500.

Now that he’s in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Earnhardt wants to finish the season the way he started – with a win at Homestead-Miami Speedway and ultimately the Sprint Cup championship.

“It’s been a fun season,” Earnhardt said after Saturday’s final Chase qualifying race, the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway. “I’ve had a blast this year. Our company has been doing so many great things. It’s been obviously a lot of fun to be able to drive such good racecars, work with such great people.

“Hopefully we can put our best foot forward in the Chase and be one of those teams in the battle going into Homestead. But as a company, I don’t think we could be any more prepared than we are.”

Indeed, Earnhardt is part of a four-team Hendrick Motorsports juggernaut, the only organization in the Chase with as many entries (Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne).

Joe Gibbs Racing has three drivers in the Chase (Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin), Team Penske has two drivers (Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano), Roush Fenway Racing has two (Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards), Stewart-Haas Racing also has two entrants (Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick), while those organizations having one sole representative are Richard Childress Racing (Ryan Newman), Richard Petty Motorsports (Aric Almirola) and JTG Daugherty Racing (AJ Allmendinger).

If there truly is strength in numbers, than HMS would appear to have the early edge heading into the Chase. But don’t forget the 2005 Chase, when RFR claimed five of the then 10 Chase spots, and still failed to win the championship (ultimately won by Tony Stewart).

NASCAR subsequently implemented a rule that was effective with the 2007 season that no organization can have more than four teams.

As for Earnhardt, he’ll start the Chase in a strong position (third seed). But he also comes into the playoffs with only moderate momentum, having finished 39th, 11th and 12th in his last three Cup races.

“I wouldn’t want to base (his momentum) on tonight’s run,” Earnhardt said Saturday night on ESPN. “I was pretty disappointed. We ran hard. I was just sitting behind these guys ahead of me with 20 laps to go and they were junk, fighting over the 11th spot. It was frustrating not to be able to get up there and anything with them. We just couldn’t get any power down.

“I don’t think it’s reflective of how strong our team is. I think we’re a real good team going into Chicago, completely different race track and we have a lot of confidence.”

But Earnhardt did surprise more than a few reporters and fans with his post-race comments both on ESPN and in the RIR media center.

“We’ve been sort of on a vacation for 20 weeks,” Earnhardt said, discussing the strong start he had to the season. “It’s time to get to it.”

When interviewed on ESPN, he added, “We’ve been locked in and really on a holiday for 20 weeks or so, since we’ve been locked in. It’s time to get serious, get down to business, get our heads straight and get ready.”

I don’t know about you, but when a driver says he and his team have been on “vacation” or “holiday” for the last 20 weeks, that is troubling.

But Earnhardt also realizes all that is riding on him and the No. 88 team in the Chase.

First, this may be arguably the best chance he’ll ever have at winning his first (and potentially only) career Sprint Cup championship.

Second, crew chief Steve Letarte will leave the team at season’s end to join NBC TV as an analyst on NASCAR races beginning in 2015. Earnhardt would like nothing better than to also win a championship for Letarte, who has never earned a Cup crown in his career as a crew chief.

Third, Earnhardt hits a significant milestone next week: he turns 40 on Oct. 10. When race car drivers reach that point, they quickly come to realize that their career has begun its downhill slide to eventual retirement.

Unless you have a reinvigoration like his teammate, Jeff Gordon, has had this season, Earnhardt knows there’s only so much time left in his career to become the champion so many have long predicted he’d one day be.

“We’re going to try and prepare as good as we can, get our minds right and ready for this Chase,” Earnhardt said at Richmond. “It’s going to be a completely different atmosphere than what we’ve done in the regular season.”

And while he’ll have three teammates to have his back – and he have theirs – in the Chase, as things progress to the four-driver, winner-take-all format in the season finale at Homestead, Earnhardt realizes that things could go from all-for-one and one-for-all to every man for himself when it comes to winning the championship.

Given how strong HMS has been collectively this season with 10 wins in the first 26 regular season races, it would seem to have the early favorite status to many.

But not to Junior.

“I don’t think you could guess who them four guys are going to be (at Homestead),” he said. “With the way the structure is, the elimination, you know, everybody’s got an equal shot.

“So I don’t think there’s any favorites. I know there’s some strong teams obviously that are running really good right now. With the way this thing is structured, it’s sort of structured to balance the playing field a little more and really give everybody a little bit more guesswork on who these guys are going to be that get eliminated and who are the guys that are going to keep moving forward.

“It’s going to be tough. You’re going to have to put together some damn good races.”

That’s so true. The onus is on Earnhardt now. What he does with it in the next 10 races will determine if this truly is his magical season – or he winds up as just another also-ran.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

A viewer’s guide to the 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona: What to watch in the debut of GTP

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona could put an unbelievable twist on one of motorsports’ most famous adages: Money buys speed, how fast do you want to go?

Money is being burned at an ungodly rate for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season opener, but the correlation between cash and performance might be completely disjointed after 24 hours on the Daytona International Speedway road course.

The debut of a new premier hybrid prototype category has some of the world’s largest automakers flocking to the Grand Touring Prototype (GTP), where annual budgets have been estimated at $15 million per for the new Le Mans Daytona hybrid (LMDh) cars.

With nine GTP cars starting the Rolex 24 at Daytona across Acura, BMW, Cadillac and Porsche, it’s safe to say the manufacturers have committed at least nine figures to launching what many are calling a new golden age for sports car racing.

But there’s no guarantee that any of the cars will finish the race. In fact, some are predicting it’s inevitable that all will spend at least some significant time in the Daytona garage repairing a high-tech car that never has raced for 24 consecutive hours. And in an era of pandemic-related supply-chain worries, there are major concerns that full repairs will be impossible even if necessary.

DETAILS FOR THE 61ST ROLEX 24How to watch, entry lists, schedules for the IMSA season opener

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH IN GTPRolex 24 at Daytona kicks off new golden era for sports cars

It’s added another layer to the pressure involved with one of the most prestigious races in the world.

“From a manufacturer perspective, this is high-stakes motorsports,” Wayne Taylor Racing No. 10 Acura driver Ricky Taylor told NBC Sports. “This is as big as it gets. To debut at the Rolex 24 is such a high-stakes event and puts such a big test on everybody. The pressure all the manufacturers and teams are under is immense. Once we get through it and survive, there’ll be a sigh of relief. But until then, we all feel the eyes of the manufacturers on us.

“It’s going to be a pressure cooker for sure.”

Along with “unpredictability” and “reliability” being buzzwords the past two weeks at Daytona, there also has been some wistful predictions that this year’s Rolex 24 will be a throwback to a bygone era when endurance races truly were a survival of the fittest instead of the fastest.

After turning into a series of 24 one-hour sprint races for many years, no one is predicting that drivers will punish their equipment with so much at stake and so few safety nets.

“This race is going to be like races from the bloody ‘70s and ‘60s,” pole-sitter Tom Blomqvist of defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing told NBC Sports. “So it’ll be like when you watch that ‘Ford vs. Ferrari,’ and they’re coming into the pits repairing serious things and still going out and coming back. It’s going to be like that, mate.

“Yeah, we don’t know. We are not 100 percent confident that our car is as reliable as it needs to be. We definitely would have liked another year. All season before we came here to this race. But everyone’s in a similar boat. Some manufacturers are further down the line than others in terms of mileage. We’re still finding things popping up here and there that we didn’t see or suspect. It’s going to be a tough race without a doubt. I’m almost certain that we’ll be spending some time in the garage. Hopefully we get lucky, but let’s say we’re not going to be surprised if we are back in the garage at some point. We don’t want to jinx anything, but it’s prepare for the worst and hope for the best sort of thing.”

Teammate Simon Pagenaud said the race will be “the 24 Hours of the Mechanics. It’s going to be a team that’s able to repair the car the fastest way possible. It’s a little more like it used to be about reliability and making sure you take care of your equipment.

“We don’t have enough time yet to be able control fully the reliability, and we haven’t done enough laps to be able to say what’s going to break first or second. You’re going into it with a bit of jitters not knowing. It’s going to be definitely a very, very different race, I think.”

Here’s a viewer’s guide of some topics to keep an eye on during the 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona:

Testing time: Though announced in January 2020, LMDh cars have been on track since only about a year ago. Porsche was the first to commit and has logged more than 30,000 kilometers of testing. Cadillac also has done significant real-world testing, but Acura admittedly has done little endurance testing, and BMW has tried to play catch up since being the last automaker to commit to the project.

Only Porsche and Cadillac can claim to have simulated the duration that cars will face this weekend. Porsche Penske Motorsport conducted a 36-hour test that managing director Jonathan Diuguid confirmed was “slightly higher” than 24 hours consecutively. Gary Nelson, team manager for Action Express, confirmed the No. 31 Cadillac ran for a full 24 hours at Sebring International Raceway last November. Acura also had attended the session but cut the test short after mechanical problems.

–Tortoise and hare: Every manufacturer has at least two cars, which creates opportunities for divergent strategies. When his team won the 2010 Rolex 24 at Daytona, Nelson said it was pushed hard by Chip Ganassi Racing’s prototypes in this tactic to wear down the competition.

“In old-school endurance racing, they’d call one a rabbit,” Nelson told NBC Sports. “He’d try to run the guts out of everybody to keep up with him, while the other (car) just followed around. There’s potential for something like that. I don’t think it’s in our playbook, but potentially there are people in these corporate offices, these manufacturers coming in, because they advanced through racing in the ‘80s and ‘90s and now they are managing these motorsports programs for these corporations. It’s very possible there’s someone from that era will say we’re going to have one rabbit, one tortoise. That’s very likely.

“We see that, I don’t think we take the bait. I think we stay with the plan.”

–LMP2 overall win? If mechanical problems do crop up for the GTP cars, the door will be opened for a victory by a car in the junior LMP2 prototype class. The LMP2 cars lap a few seconds slower and will need to make roughly nine extra pit stops than the GTP cars.

But according to NBC Sports analyst Calvin Fish, those factors would leave LMP2 cars about an hour behind GTP. That means if major mechanical problems befall all the GTP cars, an LMP2 likely would be leading. Diuguid said it would take over an hour to change out the major components on the hybrid system.

“If you have to change the gearbox, a suspension component or a hybrid component, your opportunity to win is probably over,” Diuguid said.

Nelson also predicted that teams will be more aggressive with making brake changes. Though his car’s brakes made it 24 hours last year, they generally require at least one swap. Nelson believes that will happen anywhere between the sixth and 18th hour – but probably on the early end in a concept similar to short pitting in NASCAR.

“We’re hoping our brakes make it all the way and haven’t seen anything that told us they won’t,” Nelson said. “A few years ago, we were changing brakes on anything between 6 and 18 hours. If everybody had to change the brakes in past years and you’re the last to do it, you have the least amount of time to gain it back.”

–Electric pit stops: Though it’s not IMSA-mandated, teams are using electric power only to enter and exit the pits for myriad reasons. The practice allows for a more efficient acceleration and deceleration that helps ensure hitting the speed limit. And it puts less strain on gearboxes that will be stressed over 24 hours.

–New tire strategies: With teams restricted to about a dozen fewer sets of tires, teams will be double-stinting for fuel only without opting for fresh rubber.

Nelson said the Action Express Whelen Engineering team was planning to make its tire changes coincide with its driver changes (unlike the normal practice of changing tires on most pit stops).

–Three’s the magic number: More than half the GTP teams are employing a trio of drivers instead of the maximum four that has been popular with many teams in past years. Though Colton Herta is listed as the fourth driver on BMW’s two cars, the IndyCar star might only drive one.

The shift comes as Penske and Porsche plan to field full-time entries in the World Endurance Championship, which allows only three drivers per car.

–GTD battles: Mercedes dominated qualifying, but there have been charges of sandbagging by the Ferrari and Porsche GT favorites.

That isn’t the case with defending GTD Pro class winner Pfaff Motorsports, whose No. 9 Porsche struggled to make laps in practice.

Women in racing: Led by the all-female Iron Dames lineup, there will be several opportunities for women to reach the podium or take a class victory at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Sports car ace Katherine Legge is teamed with Sheena Monk on the No. 66 for Gradient Racing.