Pit Call Leaves Earnhardt Stuck In Back
By: Dustin Long - @dustinlong on May 4, 2014 | 6:22 P.M. EST
Dale Earnhardt Jr. gave up the lead to pit on Lap 152 while many others stayed out and never recovered, finishing 26th. (Photo: Getty Images)
TALLADEGA, Ala. - Dale Earnhardt Jr. feared he was in trouble the moment he came down pit road, giving up the lead, while many others stayed out.
He was right.
Earnhardt, who led 26 laps, then hung in the back and never got back to the front, finishing 26th in Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway.
His result typified the day for Hendrick Motorsports. Jimmie Johnson spun on his own and finished 23rd, and Jeff Gordon was collected in a crash and placed 39th. Kasey Kahne was the only Hendrick driver to finish in the top 10, tying his season-best of eighth place.
The key moment for Earnhardt came when the caution came out on Lap 151 for David Gilliland’s blown engine. Earnhardt said that crew chief Steve Letarte told him they were about two laps short on fuel of making it to the end. Earnhardt relinquished the lead to pit. Among those who did not were winner Denny Hamlin, runner-up Greg Biffle and third-place finisher Clint Bowyer.
“We put ourselves in a bad spot in the back,’’ Earnhardt said. “We were great leading the race there. We come down pit road to get fuel and them other guys were way more aggressive. I couldn’t do nothing after that but drive up in there and get wrecked. I just sat there and watched the wrecks.’’
He hung back and was 2.5 seconds behind the leader with less than 15 laps left and didn’t get near the front.
“I knew there was going to be a wreck, and I didn’t want to be in it,’’ Earnhardt said of running well behind the leaders. “I wasn’t confident we could get to the front. We could drive in the back of the pack and sit there and ride and get boxed in. We avoided tearing up a good car, and we’ll try to go to Daytona and just do a little bit different to where we aren’t pitting and giving up all that track position at the end.’’
Earnhardt said he also had nowhere to go in the back.
“The outside lane didn’t work very well,’’ he said. “When we gave up the lead to come down pit road, I knew we weren’t going to be able to get back to the front. Nobody has been able to drive from the back to the front.’’
Bowyer, who finished third, did come from the back to the front with not pitting but said there was a way to race to the front. The key was that a driver needed time. That’s something Earnhardt didn’t have with four cautions in the last 40 laps, including three in the last 13 laps.
“Start of a run, you couldn't just blast up through them,’’ Bowyer said of coming through the field. “There was no way. They were three-wide. Without trying to force the issue and going four-wide and doing something stupid ... there was no way you could do that.
“For me, you just had to wait, let them thin out, let those tires way out a little bit. It looked to me about 20, 25 laps into our run things would kind of separate out and calm down. You saw some separation in cars, then you could kind of get a run and drive your way up to the front.’’
As for Johnson, he wasn’t sure what caused his spin
“I’m not really sure why,’’ he said. “I know I had some damage to the right rear quarter panel, and I had a great-driving racecar with no issues and then as I was coming through Turn 3, the back end just slid out from under me. So, I don’t know where cars were around me and what could have created it, but it just took a big lazy slide and the back came around.’’
Gordon was collected in a crash on Lap 137 that was triggered by Brad Keselowski, who was running near the front of the pack while six laps down.
“Man, we had a great car,’’ said Gordon, who remains the points leader, holding a three-point advantage on Matt Kenseth.