Although he finished a respectable 12th and avoided major catastrophe in Sunday's opening race of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Dale Earnhardt Jr. left Chicagoland Speedway a frustrated man.
Just how frustrated?
Speaking on his weekly podcast, "The Dale Jr. Download," NASCAR's most popular driver bemoaned the lack of speed his No. 88 Chevy carried throughout most of the weekend despite his Greg Ives-led team having tested at Chicagoland in preparation for the Chase opener.
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Earnhardt wasn't particularly surprised to arrive at Chicagoland without the speed he wanted, however, since the test hadn't produced the kind of results the team sought.
"We just didn't really find anything so that was kind of frustrating and disappointing," Earnhardt said of the test. "The only thing we found was a great barbeque joint called 'Firewater.' Otherwise, the test was kind of a wash."
Although Earnhardt never led the race or seriously challenged for the lead, his car did improve throughout the course of the afternoon.
"We ran about 10th to 13th really all day long, and for the most part the car had some balance issues," the Kannapolis, North Carolina native said. "It was a little bit loose up sometimes up high, but mainly it was way too tight off the wall entering the corner and down into the center. We made some pretty good changes that I think were helping that, and then, finally, later in the race I jacked the track bar way up, and that seemed to really make a good change for the car. We got the car actually driving pretty good the last probably 80 to 100 laps, and we just never really got an opportunity to showcase that. A lot of cautions fell at inopportune times for us."
Earnhardt found the last of those cautions -- which came out with less than 10 laps to -- to be especially frustrating.
"I wish that last caution hadn't have come out, to be honest with you," he said on the podcast. "I felt like we were working Brad (Keselowski, eighth-place finisher) over and were maybe going to get him for position but the 83 car (Matt DiBenedetto) got in the wall, and I guess that was enough for that yellow to come out."
When the race restarted with five laps to go, Earnhardt Jr. jumped to the outside line hoping to pass several cars, but got bottled up as several other drivers appeared to have the same idea. And the end result was a finish that he felt was not indicative of the gains made on the car during the race.
"I think we would have been able to run in the top 10 pretty easily by the end of the race, with the way the car was driving," he said. "We had the same speed as a lot of the guys running in the top 10, because during a run I could see I was catching a lot of these guys from probably fourth, fifth place on back."
Although Earnhardt heads into the last two races of the Chase Challenger Round ranked 10th among the 16 championship-eligible drivers, and in position to reach the next round, the third-generation driver is hardly satisfied.
"The car needs more speed," he said. "We need to be a little more competitive, but what else you gonna do? You've got to put it in the past and move forward. We've got a couple completely different racetracks coming up -- New Hampshire and Dover. We need to be competitive there. We need to run, at worst, 10th, or 11th or 12th at worst.
"We can get into that next round without being a top-five car, but after that it's going to have to be a top-five car. We know that, we understand that, so we're trying as hard as we can to improve things and get to where we know we need to be to be able to race for the championship."
Earnhardt said he and Ives, his first-year crew chief, are working closely together and doing everything they possibly can to take a step forward in their championship quest.
"We're putting in the time and effort to try to give ourselves the best shot we can," Earnhardt said. "I hope everybody appreciates that, and we're going to work hard. Hopefully we'll get a little bit of luck, too, on some of these cautions going forward."