It was a big week for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Junior Nation.
Following his first Talladega Superspeedway victory in over a decade, there was plenty of celebrating by the team and fan base. In addition, the 2014 DAYTONA 500 winner opened a new Whisky River location at Charlotte-Douglas Airport – accomplishing impressive feats in both his racing and business life.
Going to Kansas Speedway, morale’s remained high as the team has shown speed at the track in previous races. This includes last October when the car dominated only to blow a tire and slam into wall while leading. The combination of momentum from Talladega and promise the Heartland showed in the fall influenced the No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet team’s anticipation for another strong run.
For much of the SpongeBob SquarePants 400, Earnhardt Jr. remained mid-pack. He struggled at times and even went a lap down prior to the rain delay. However, a caution allowed him to quickly gain the lap back.
When the race resumed, he continued to run mid-pack for the most part and occasionally entered the top-10. His machine wasn’t as strong as it looked in October. However, strategy helped the team secure a position up front in the late stages of the event.
Under the new Chase for the Sprint Cup format, a victory changes a competitor and team’s mentality. Instead of playing it consistent and trying to remain high in the points without a victory, a win provides opportunity for gambles to be taken.
During the final yellow flag period, the team decided to stay out and gain track position in order to have a shot at taking home the trophy for the second straight week. Had they not won in Talladega, this would have been a risky call. However, the confidence of being in the playoff’s influenced crew chief Greg Ives’ decision to remain on track and go for the win.
His Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson stayed out as well, setting up a duel between the top-two finishers from Talladega. Johnson restarted on the outside which put him in a great position to take the victory.
The outside lane had been favored throughout the night. “I was real jealous of that lane he had,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I think I could have done a better job than he did with it on that first lap,” he admitted, thinking that restarting in the outside lane could have given him a better shot at the win.
He surprised himself by keeping up with Johnson for a few laps following the restart, saying, “I couldn’t believe we still hung with him coming back with five to go or whatever. I thought he would have took off with that outside groove.”
As the two battled, Kevin Harvick entered the picture. Having one of the most dominant cars of the night and two fresh tires, many expected him to fly past the leading teammates. However, he only passed the No. 88 car and couldn’t catch the six-time champion.
While Johnson went on to earn his third checkered flag of the season, Earnhardt Jr. held on to finish third. This was his sixth top-five result and seventh top-10 finish of the season. The team has been very consistent over the last few years and has quietly kept the trend going in 2015.
Coming home third was likely many positions ahead of where he would have ended up had he pitted under the final caution. This gamble represents the chances open to the team with a Chase berth all but officially secured. Expect similar chances to be taken at the end of the races heading into the summer months as the team goes after additional victories.
Photo Credit: Kena Krutsinger