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Junior gives fans reason to hope
FORT WORTH, TEXAS
Oh, Junior Nation, your patience is commendable.
It's been 54 races since Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s last win — at Michigan, in June 2012. Yet with each race, particularly in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, you cling to each glimmer of hope.
This season, Earnhardt has given his loyal fans something to get excited about. No, he’s not in the Chase hunt. No, he hasn’t won a race. But considering he's consistently in the top 10 and leading laps again, can a victory be far behind?
Why not Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, where Earnhardt scored his first career Sprint Cup win in April 13 years ago?
After finishing second in the Daytona 500, Junior posted five results of seventh or better before taking the points lead at Auto Club Speedway after another second-place showing. While he led laps in only two of the first 14 races, Earnhardt’s consistency has picked up dramatically in the Chase.
Yes, Junior experienced his third engine failure of the season at the Chase kickoff at Chicagoland Speedway. But he led two laps before the engine blew. He came back the following week at Loudon, started 17th and powered his way to the front to lead laps for the first time in 10 starts on the flat-mile track before finishing sixth.
And when the No. 88 Chevy sat on the pole at Dover for the first time in his career and kept returning to the point for a total of 80 laps — second only to his teammate Jimmie Johnson — it seemed possible he would return to Victory Lane for the first time in 12 years at the Monster Mile until the No. 48 Chevy gained the advantage on the final pit stop.
Still, after dropping to 13th in the point standings — the Chase cellar — after Chicagoland, Junior has chipped away at his deficit every week with six top-10s in seven playoff races. He's led laps in six of the first seven Chase races — something he's never accomplished while being a contender.
Although his Hendrick Motorsports teammates Johnson and Jeff Gordon have received all the attention of late, Earnhardt made gains at Texas throughout the weekend. The team recovered from a slow start off the truck with the seventh-fastest lap in qualifying. And Earnhardt anticipates that what he learned during the team’s test at Texas last week will help.
“We didn’t get started off on the right foot in practice,” Earnhardt said. “So to be able to come back and put a lap down, which was good and a competitive lap, we’re happy. We tested here and did all race stuff, so I think we’ll have an even better race car.”
After posting the sixth-fastest lap in Happy Hour on Saturday, Earnhardt radioed, “I can drive this thing a little better now. That’s nice.” Crew chief Steve Letarte replied, “Big gains. Big gains.”
Earnhardt’s average finish of 14.3 at Texas ranks eighth among his fellow Cup contenders. When Earnhardt experienced electrical issues in the No. 88 Chevy here in the spring, it squelched his run of five consecutive top-10 finishes. Still, Earnhardt remains encouraged he can post a successful run on Sunday.
"I think we can win the race,” Earnhardt said. “We’ve had some great cars over the last several weeks, and we’re trying really hard over these last three weeks to try and capitalize on that.''
WHERE THE RUBBER MEETS THE ROAD
While some Sprint Cup teams that tested at Texas Motor Speedway last week — including Earnhardt and Matt Kenseth — experienced problems with right-side tires, many believed that after the track rubbered up over the weekend many of the issues would disappear.
Goodyear elected to return to Texas with the same tire it raced in the spring. However, as Greg Stucker, Goodyear's director of race tires, points out, as teams improve the new Generation 6 car and speeds rise, so does the wear of the tires.
"Texas has a very abrasive track surface, and like all the mile-and-a-half tracks, it is also extremely fast,” Stucker said. “At the test, when teams were on a completely green race track, we saw high wear, as you would expect. That will improve as the race weekend progresses and rubber is put down on the track. We also saw high tire temps, mostly on the right-front corner of the car.
"The bottom line is, tire management will come into play in the race. Teams will have to manage the combination of wear and heat, as well as the rest of their race package all weekend.''
After the test, Goodyear took tires — including Kenseth’s — back to its headquarters in Akron, Ohio, for further evaluation.
Still, multiple drivers continued to have cords exposed during practice and rubber build up on the tires. On Saturday, several Nationwide Series teams had issues throughout the race — most notably Kyle Busch, who wrecked in Turn 4 on Lap 110. He finished 26th.
Busch’s teammate Denny Hamlin, who salvaged a second-place finish, had no complaints about the tire.
"You'll never, ever hear me complain about a tire that wears out,” Hamlin said. “They can wear out in 20 laps, that would be fine with me."
2 — Poles this season for 20-year-old rookie Alex Bowman in the Nationwide Series.
6 — Wins in 14 Nationwide starts for Brad Keselowski — matching a career best from 2010, when he won the series title.
185.323 mph — Best 10 Consecutive Lap Average in Happy Hour — set by points leader Matt Kenseth, who starts sixth on Sunday.
After guiding the No. 22 Penske Racing Ford to 12 wins with four different drivers in the Nationwide Series garage this season, crew chief Jeremy Bullins acknowledged that his phone has been ringing off the hook. However, he remains under contract — and loyal — to team owner Roger Penske.
“I’ll stay as long as he wants me,” Bullins said.
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