Earnhardt Scores Best Sonoma Finish

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. scored his first career top-10 finish at Sonoma Raceway on Sunday. (Photo: Getty Images)

SONOMA, Calif. - When it was over, Dale Earnhardt Jr. could joke about his career-best finish third-place finish at Sonoma Raceway.

“No telling what this car could have done with somebody driving it,’’ Earnhardt said on the radio to crew chief Steve Letarte after Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350. 

“You did a good job,’’ Letarte said.

It was the end of an eventful day for Earnhardt, who had never finished better than 11th at Sonoma before Sunday, and also was involved in two incidents - including one that he admitted on Twitter leaves him with “one coming.”

The finish, though, thrilled Earnhardt.

“Aside from holding a trophy, this is like a win for us,’’ Earnhardt said. “I've been in the top 10 in a lot of these races with two or three laps to go, but we've just never been able to finish.’’

He credited his run to Letarte’s strategy.

“We figured that our best opportunity to run well here would be to pit and get newer tires more often than everybody else, so having the two wins in the season, it allowed us to really kind of gamble and go ahead and get back there in the mess and have newer tires, and it paid off,’’ he said. “We were able to drive up through there.’’

Along the way, though, Earnhardt had contact with Matt Kenseth and AJ Allmendinger in separate incidents. Earnhardt hit a curb and it sent his car into Kenseth’s car, which crashed into the tire barrier on Lap 75.

“I was racing him a little hard there coming out of Turn 7,’’  Earnhardt said of Kenseth. “He probably had the preferred line, and I probably should have yielded to him, but I was ‑ I thought I was a little bit faster than him and didn't want to be stuck behind him.’’

Said Kenseth: “I knew he (Earnhardt) was on my right side. On the restart we were side-by-side, and I got him going into (Turn) 7 and left him plenty of room when we were racing side-by-side. He tapped me on my right rear and wrecked me. I don’t really know what happened and it doesn’t matter at this point. Unfortunately it ended our day.”

After the race, Earnhardt tweeted: “Take full responsibility for @mattkenseth accident. Jumped the curb beside him and landed in his door. Glad he was unhurt. I got one coming.’’

Earnhardt and Allmendinger made contact on the Lap 86 restart. Allmendinger then bounced off cars before Brian Vickers hit him.

“I thought I gave him enough room on the outside,’’ Earnhardt said of Allmendinger. “He had a lot of wheel, we're coming out of that corner and his right front poking out like that jumped the left rear of my car, and I felt it yank on the car real hard and looked in the mirror, and I thought he and about 10 other cars were wrecking. I thought the caution was coming out. I don't know how bad it was for him, but I had just got around him and we got down into that corner and I ran low protecting my line, he shot to the outside and that's his prerogative. But I thought I gave him enough room. I didn't think I ran him in the fence.’’

Said Allmendinger: “It's just disappointing the way our day ended and to leave Sonoma with a car that's tore up.’’

Despite those incidents, Earnhardt was strong throughout the race and didn’t just happen into his first top-10 finish at this track. Earnhardt was fast all weekend. He credited not testing on a road course before arriving.

“If you know what you're doing driving these cars on a road course, you can go places and test and learn, but if you're not a great road course driver, if you're just kind of run‑of‑the‑mill going over there to Road Atlanta, you're just going to work your guts out for nothing,’’ Earnhardt said. “We sort of relied on our teammates a little bit that tested, and all that helped the most, really leaning on Jeff (Gordon) and those guys and what everybody learned.’’

It worked for Earnhardt on Sunday.               

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