Last Sunday’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway showed that there may actually be a light at the end of the tunnel for the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team. That light is still pretty dim and quite a ways away, but it’s there.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. — who missed his third chase in four years — battled back from 32nd place starting position and adversity on pit road to finish fourth.
[media-credit name=”Kirk Schroll | Speedway Media” align=”alignright” width=”400″][/media-credit]In fact, after several races of being the worst finishing Hendrick Motorsports driver, Earnhardt earned the best finish among his HMS comrades.
Earnhardt had reached the top-ten by the middle of the race, but lost some spots on pit road when Regan Smith blocked NASCAR’s most popular driver into his pit box. His crew had to push his car back to give Earnhardt room to maneuver his car out of his pit area, losing several spots.
That wasn’t the only adversity he faced during the day, however. Earnhardt had two multi-car wrecks happen in close proximity to his Amp Energy/National Guard Chevrolet that he had to avoid. He and his crew were also burdened with a broken jack-stop.
At times Earnhardt was running faster laps than the leaders. Although, in the end, Earnhardt didn’t have the track position to break his more than two-year winless streak in the Sprint Cup Series.
“The setbacks we had today hurt us a lot,” Earnhardt said. “I want to thank AMP Energy and National Guard and the team, they worked really hard. We unloaded a great car, they did a good job preparing it at the shop. We worked on it all weekend. It was pretty good in practice and we improved on it a little bit. We had an eighth place finish last time and felt like we were really fast and competitive all day long. We can’t qualify very good here, but once we get in race trim, we just kind of go to the front or get near the front.”
“It felt like we had a top-10 car and we had the jack-stop break and had to go to the back and then a miscommunication with the No. 78 (Regan Smith) on pit that cost us a half of a lap under green, just battling back from that stuff. Track position was what we needed at the end, we didn’t have it.”
While Earnhardt’s points situation is now a moot-point, he did improve one position to the 18th points position, trailing 13th place Ryan Newman by 153 points.
New Hampshire was a nice rebound for Earnhardt, who finished a disappointing 38th at Richmond two weeks ago. Earnhardt’s teammate, Jimmie Johnson, will be looking for a similar rebound next weekend.
After Johnson battled up from a 25th place starting position, he was involved in a spin with the Busch brothers — Kyle and Kurt — on lap 223, receiving minor damage to his car.
A few laps later, a loose wheel would force Johnson to pit again and lose two laps to take him and his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet out of race contention. Johnson, who entered the race second in points, dropped to seventh and will need to stay out of trouble at Dover and in the coming weeks to stay alive in the title hunt.
“We showed up today, we did what we could,” Johnson said. “We had a decent car today and ran in the top-five and top-ten but just didn’t end up finishing there. We’ll go home and get back to work and go after it again next week.”
In Johnson’s defense, he and his team are arguably the best team in the sport when it comes to digging themselves out of adversity. Which is exactly the supporting evidence used by Clint Bowyer, who said after the race that Johnson’s team is certainly not out of the championship discussion.
“Teams like the No. 48 are so good at rebounding; you can’t ever count those guys out,” Bowyer said. “For us, our strengths are how consistent we are. And we haven’t won a race yet this year. So while we’re trying to win races in these final 10, we can’t necessarily just expect it to happen; maybe like some other guys might be feeling. So we can’t afford to go out there and have a 25th place finish today.”
Johnson now trails points leader Denny Hamlin by 92 points heading into Chase race No. 2 next weekend at Dover. Johnson was the worst finishing chaser of the day and was one of three that finished outside of the top-20.
Tony Stewart appeared to be on his way to victory — until he ran out of fuel with one lap to go. By the time Stewart had coasted around to the checkered flag, he was scored 24th.
“I’m not happy, that’s for sure, but we went down swinging,” Stewart said. “It’s hard to lose one that way but at the same time it was fun racing Clint like that. He was definitely the fastest car and congratulations to those guys. It’s a tough way to start the Chase but I’m proud of my guys. Darian (Grubb, crew chief) kept swinging at it all day and finally on that last set of tires we got it halfway decent.”
Stewart dropped five points positions to 11th in points, trailing Hamlin by 124 points.
Matt Kenseth was the other chaser to finish outside of the top-20 on Sunday. He recorded a 23rd place finish and dropped one spot to 12th in the Chase standings. He is now faced with a 136-point deficit.
“Our Crown Royal Ford was just tight in the middle and needed help turning in the front today,” Kenseth said. “The guys made adjustments all race long but we just didn’t run very well. We got caught up in that wreck, had a lot of damage to the car, and it was just a really long day for us.”