Notes: Where Earnhardt Needs To Be Better
By: Dustin Long - @dustinlong on August 26, 2014 | 2:20 P.M. EST
Dale Earnhardt Jr. says there's a key area he needs to be better for the Chase. (Photo: Getty Images)
MARTINSVILLE, Va. - For as good as Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been this season, he knows there’s a key area he needs to better for the Chase.
Earnhardt’s average starting spot of 15.9 is worse than every other driver in the top 10 in points heading into this weekend’s race at Atlanta. He is starting - on average -nearly nine spots behind Brad Keselowski and about seven spots behind Jeff Gordon, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick each race.
That Earnhardt has scored a series-high 11 top-five finishes and three victories shows the strength of his team. Earnhardt knows that starting back in the field presents challenges for crew chief Steve Letarte in determining strategy.
“Steve has to do things he doesn’t want to do on pit road to give us track position,’’ Earnhardt said Tuesday during a Hendrick Motorsports test at Martinsville Speedway. “We have to give up left-side tires on a stop or something like that and put ourselves really behind a little bit on the pit strategy to get the track position.’’
Earnhardt said the team understood why it didn’t qualify as well two weeks at Michigan (25th) and last week at Bristol (20th) based on the setup of his teammates.
Earnhardt, who has 13 poles in 530 career Sprint Cup starts, admits that qualifying is challenging for him.
“I’m just not a hot-lapper,’’ he said. “I’m a rhythm driver where I get into a race and fall into the pace. I do my best work in repetition. I’ve qualified well and sat on poles before, but I’m not traditionally a guy that can shoot out there and hot-lap a car like some of these other guys. It would be awesome to have that trait, but we’re still running well. It does sort of make the day more difficult.
“You can do things that easily to get yourself into the top 10 and get out of that hole, but when you’ve got to race around those guys in the top five and you’re behind them halfway through the race and the rest of your day is trying those remaining five cars, it’s hard. It’s great when you can qualify up front and not have to worry about it.
All three of Earnhardt’s victories this season have come when he started in the top 10. He has started 20th or worse eight times this season and scored a top-10 finish in six of those races.
To compare, defending champion Jimmie Johnson’s average start in the Chase last year was 5.9.
That doesn’t meant starting further back can keep someone from winning the title. Keselowski’s average starting spot in the Chase when he won the 2012 was 16.2. Keselowski had a strong car in race setup and also used crew chief Paul Wolfe’s aggressive strategy to overcome his starting spot in those Chase races.
Jimmie Johnson was called for speeding twice during last weekend’s race at Bristol and overcame that to finish fourth.
So, what was the issue?
“Pit road was definitely on us,’’ Johnson said during a break in testing Tuesday at Martinsville Speedway. “We still haven’t had a chance to break it down. We assume that something went wrong with the marks that we have on pit road for me to accelerate to. We either had it wrong or underestimated how fast the car could get up to speed. After the second time, I’m like, “OK, I’m doing the basic speed limit all the way around.’ ‘’
Kyle Busch, who won at Atlanta last year, has finished 42nd, 40th, 39th and 36th in his last four races, marking his worst four-race stretch in his Cup career.
Busch was caught speeding on pit road early in last weekend’s race at Bristoland then was collected in a crash. His night never recovered and ended with a heated radio conversation with crew chief Dave Rogers that car owner Joe Gibbs dismissed as frustrated competitors letting off steam after a rough race.
Ty Dillon will make his first career Cup start this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway. His brother, Austin, made his Cup debut in Oct. 2011 at Kansas. He finished 26th. ... Twice in last year’s Atlanta race, the leader suffered an engine issue after halfway and failed to finish. ... Four drivers failed to finish last year’s Atlanta race because of engine issues (Brad Keselowski, Landon Cassill, Denny Hamlin and Clint Bowyer). ... Rain plagued the test at Chicagoland Speedway. Stewart-Haas Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing, Roush Fenway Racing, Richard Petty Motorsports and Chip Ganassi Racing had track time interrupted by rain Monday and Tuesday there.