[media-credit name=”Brad Keppel” align=”alignright” width=”215″][/media-credit]Dale Earnhardt Jr. has done everything but win thus far in 2011. He’s won a pole, wrecked, led laps and finished well. But he still hasn’t found a way to snap the looming over 100 race winless streak.
He’s come close in races such as Martinsville and Charlotte where he was in the lead until Kevin Harvick came along for the win on both occasions. Sunday in Kansas, Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 88 National Guard/AMP Energy team worked themselves to another great finish, but it came in a way they would have preferred to avoid.
During a period where Earnhardt Jr. said he was trying to find more speed and gain ground, he “busted my butt in three and four” and spun out. It sent him to the rear of the field after making a pit stop. That however set them up to run the race with just one remaining stop while the leaders would have to pit twice.
Leaders started to pit as the laps wound down and Earnhardt Jr. climbed up the board. Eventually he found himself running second to Brad Keselowski who was making the fuel gamble also. In the end, Earnhardt Jr. would tie his best finish of the season, second.
“We got lucky at the end on fuel mileage to get second place,” said Earnhardt Jr. “We ran real good. We found some speed at the end of the last practice and when the race started the car was pretty good and I think we made it better in the race. It’s just so hard to pass here, the worst I’ve ever seen it and starting where we did wasn’t easy.”
Luckily points are given where you finish and not where you start. Earnhardt Jr. moved into third in the series points standings, just 41 out of the lead. He also has the second best average.
While some are quick to point out that Earnhardt Jr. has appeared more lucky than good this season, he’ll agree to a point. Acknowledging that his team has been performing very well.
“We’ve had some runs were we drove ourselves into the position we finished,” he said. “We finished well by running well and by getting lucky. That’s what championship teams do. You always scratch your head when Jimmie [Johnson] and those guys look like they’re out of it in and the next thing you know at the end of the race they’re right in the middle it. Now, I guess I’m on that side of the fence.”
The 2011 season is the first in many were Earnhardt Jr. has been in contention. Revealing last weekend after Charlotte that he looks forward to coming to the racetrack each weekend, no longer having to force himself to find something to be happy about. Other members of the team say they love being able to come to the track knowing they have a chance to win.
Earnhardt Jr. has had fast cars and a few chances to win already. A little luck here or strategy there and who knows.
A different Earnhardt Jr. attitude has taken center stage and no longer is it a stretch to talk about an eventual win. Such as what almost was on Sunday in another fuel mileage race.
“We did what we had to do, I’m happy,” said Earnhardt Jr.
He was also happy to praise his new crew chief, who has been credited with a big part in Earnhardt Jr.’s turnaround. For the second week in a row, Steve Letarte knew that the only way to get his driver back in contention with the cards they were dealt was through pit strategy.
Last Sunday night in Charlotte they were just a few hundred yards from the win, but ended up seventh. But Letarte didn’t shy away from trying again and kept Earnhardt Jr. on the track and coached him toward the front and a second place finish.
“Me and him get along great,” said Earnhardt Jr. “He’s a good crew chief and he’s real smart with the cars. He’s not afraid to try what he sees other people doing. He’s just sharp, we all could do better and be better at our job. Right now it’s working out. We’re getting along great, we’re running good. Hopefully we can keep it up, it’s going along good. I’m not going to do anything to mess it up, I’m going to stay on the positive side and work hard right along with him and give him everything he needs.”