Dale Earnhardt Jr. now has nothing to lose, and is loving it

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Relaxed, spitballing and almost-40-year-old Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a good, happy Dale Earnhardt Jr.

And a calm, cool, collected Junior might be trouble for the rest of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series field this Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Following his Kansas debacle where he ended 39th, Earnhardt Jr., like Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne, currently sits outside the top eight, the drivers who advance to the Eliminator round.

It seems Junior has the field right where he wants them.

“I always win in weirdest times and the oddest circumstances, so everything’s lining up for me this weekend,” he said during his media availability Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“We should be competitive this weekend. We know what the situation is with the points, and how important it is to come in and win the race. I’m winless in a points-paying race here since I started my career.”

If it doesn’t sound like it makes sense, Earnhardt Jr. attempted to explain why he felt in such a relaxed state of mind this week.

“When you say it’s ‘must-win,’ that don’t make it sound like its easier,” he said. “But as soon as we had trouble, now there’s two kinds of approaches.

“One is to run well and hope nothing bad happens. The other is you can kinda just go for broke. I feel less pressure now than I did before the race at Kansas. Under this circumstance I feel like less pressure. I think we’re good enough, and I believe we’ll run well.”

With Johnson and Brad Keselowski also sitting outside the top eight at the moment, Earnhardt said he’s not worrying about them in terms of trying to advance.

“Those are the two of the most successful guys, with championships and how they run. But I can’t worry about them, and what are my odds versus them,” he said.

“I’m not counting points or worrying about scenarios. My job is to help Steve (Letarte, crew chief) put together the strategy. We’ve been very good at doing that this year.

“In this situation where nothing matters, is where we do the best. Daytona 500, we could be so risky and aggressive on our calls, and it paid off. When this Chase started, we reverted back towards being reserved and calculated, and it netted us average results.

“We have our backs against the walls but we can be aggressive again. And that’s where Steve is at his best. If the car’s competitive, we can be around with a shot.”

Ford Mustang GT3 test has Austin Cindric dreaming of Daytona: ‘I want to drive that car’

Cindric Ford GT3 test
Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Austin Cindric wasn’t the “mystery” test driver behind the wheel of the new Ford Mustang GT3 at Sebring International Raceway, but the Team Penske driver desperately wanted to be.

Ford CEO Jim Farley, an amateur sports car driver himself, made the big reveal via a Tuesday tweet that provided the first video evidence of the GT3 Mustang on track.

“I’ve watched the video in question about a million times,” Cindric said Wednesday during a Ford Performance Zoom news conference to promote NASCAR’s first road course weekend of the season at Circuit of the Americas. “Definitely exciting times for sure. I want to drive that car. It suits my experience level and also the relationships that I have.”

Ford will enter the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship next season with its GT3 Mustang, entering a two-car factory effort (that will be managed by Multimatic) in GTD Pro and making customer cars available in the GT Daytona category.

That increases the likelihood of seeing more NASCAR drivers crossing over to IMSA. Cindric has been the only full-time Cup driver in the Rolex 24 at Daytona the past two years, but Ford Performance global director Mark Rushbrook has said the GT3 Mustang will provide more opportunities.

Ford has used its GT4 Mustang as a NASCAR driver development tool in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge with Harrison Burton and Zane Smith combining to win the season opener at Daytona International Speedway in January.

“We’re excited about the Next Gen car and the new architecture there and the similarities between that car and GT3 and even GT4 cars,” Rushbrook said at the announcement of the Ford GT3 program in January 2022 at Daytona. “We think it’s a great opportunity and to do be able to do that in a 24-hour race and get NASCAR drivers even more time is something we need to consider taking advantage of that opportunity.”

Given his sports car background, Cindric probably still would be in the Rolex 24 regardless. He has eight IMSA starts since the 2017 season opener at Daytona, racing a Lexus RCF GT3 and Mercedes-AMG GT3 in the GT category. The 2022 Daytona 500 winner made his second LMP2 start this year with Rick Ware Racing.

But Cindric’s preference naturally would be in a Ford, particularly with sports car racing enjoying convergence and crossovers in both GT and prototype racing.

“It’s an exciting time in GT racing, just as it is now for prototype racing with a lot of new regulations and manufacturers building new GT3 cars,” he said. “And also the opportunity with WEC (the World Endurance Championship) and Le Mans and how that all lines up for that category of car. It’s definitely an exciting time. I want to be as much of a part of that as possible.”

Though those odds seemingly will increase with multiple Ford entries in the Rolex 24 field next year, Cindric said NASCAR drivers still have to put in the networking to land rides as he has in recent years.

“Now how (the GT3 Mustang) relates to specifically NASCAR drivers and how often they want to be in the Rolex, could it be an influence? Absolutely, as far as the tie-in with the manufacturer,” Cindric said. “But the challenge and the drive and the logistics of getting an opportunity for a race like the Rolex 24 will be just as challenging as it always is to find your one-off ride for the race. At least from my experience, that’s what I still anticipate.”

It turned out the “mystery” test driver wasn’t from NASCAR (Farley revealed the driver to be 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Joey Hand after a fan asked whether it was Joey Logano).

But Cindric believes there could be more Cup drivers — and perhaps himself — behind the wheel of Mustang GT3s in the future.

“There’s definitely more of a pathway than I think there would be before as far as Ford drivers are concerned,” he said. “Hopefully, I’ll get the opportunity to drive that thing. It’s obviously a great looking car. That’s the first box you’ve got to check. And it’s cool (to have) a guy like Jim Farley, no doubt he’s a racer just as much as he is steering the ship for Ford. It’s cool to see he’s just as excited as the rest of us about it.”