Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn’t earn a repeat win Sunday at Michigan International Speedway.
But NASCAR’s most popular driver salvaged what could have been another disastrous weekend after finishing 32nd and 28th, respectively at Pocono and Watkins Glen in recent Sprint Cup races. Earnhardt finished fourth at MIS and learned a lot about team building in the process -- just not with his Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon.
Earnhardt started at the back of the Pure Michigan 400 field after wrecking his car in the closing minutes of Happy Hour on Saturday. The team quickly unloaded a backup car and Earnhardt was forced to start from scratch, shaking down the car in the opening laps of the race and deciding on a direction to take the vehicle.
“I feel like I was under pressure to just not make any more mistakes,” Earnhardt said. “I spun out twice in the last two weeks on my own and that’s something I try not to have happen and try not to have that kind of reputation.
“I felt real bad last night about wrecking the car and all the work the guys had to do to get this car ready for today. They just poured through so many documents and notes on that car to try to put it on the start grid this morning.”
Earnhardt moved up to 32nd on the first lap. An early caution on Lap 6 allowed the crew to make adjustments, and crew chief Steve Letarte continued to dial the car in during the first 100 laps.
Despite a difference of opinion between Earnhardt and Gordon, who questioned the No. 88's decision to take the field four wide on the Lap 81 restart, the day was fairly uneventful.
"The (expletive) 88 can thank me later for not wrecking him," Gordon said over the radio.
"I don't know what I did," Earnhardt replied after asking his spotter to speak with Gordon's. "But I'm sorry if I did something."
Team owner Rick Hendrick then came over the radio and told Earnhardt, "You didn't do anything, just drive that thing to the front."
Junior replied, "I'm trying."
Earnhardt credited his team and “great strategy” for the quick turnaround.
"First off, my team put together a great race car last night and this morning that was comfortable and competitive,” Earnhardt said. “We didn't have any laps on the racetrack so a lot of credit goes to the guys on the car. Steve did a great job on strategy, getting us a lot of track position. We were able to maintain most of it. We lost a little bit there at the end. I think that last set of tires didn't agree with us quite as much as it was in the middle part of the race.”
That’s when Earnhardt’s car appeared reminiscent of his winning June run.
Earnhardt took the lead for the first time on Lap 114 and led 10 circuits. He moved to the point again on Lap 138 before teammate Jimmie Johnson passed him 15 laps later. Still, Earnhardt remained in striking distance throughout the second half of the race.
“They did an awesome job,” Earnhardt said. ”So, thanks to my crew and I give all those guys all the credit for today. Steve did a good job getting us some track position with his pit strategy in giving us an opportunity to get a good run. We may not have quite enough to win, but a good finish position.”
Earnhardt moved up to third in the point standings. He trails Kenseth by two points and leader Greg Biffle by 22.