'Try to do whatever you need to do.'
For Dale Earnhardt Jr., the only realistic way to keep the championship hopes of the No. 88 team alive is to win Sunday’s GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on ESPN).
If Earnhardt wins, however, there’s a good chance he’ll knock teammate Jimmie Johnson out of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
But Earnhardt isn’t about to let that thought affect his approach.
“We all sort of just race our own races and run our own seasons,” Earnhardt said Saturday morning at Talladega. “I would never expect any of my teammates to do anything differently. They’re supposed to go out there and run as good as they possibly can run and finish as well as they possibly can finish every week.
“I’ve been in situations in years past, with Michael (Waltrip) in particular, at race tracks where we’re working together, and it’s five laps to go and I’m driving the Bud car and the Miller car (with Rusty Wallace) is behind me. If I pull out, he’s not going to go with me. Do I help my teammate?”
Over the years, Earnhardt has found a clear-cut answer to that question.
“I’ve been in those situations before, and there’s really no other (solution) than all you have to do in that situation is to think about the team on pit road, and all the guys that are working in that shop and the fabricators that work on your car, individually, that are at home watching. And they want you to win.
“And those are the people that matter. So, you’ve got to go and try to do whatever you need to do. That particular night, I pulled out and Rusty (Wallace) didn’t go and we sent to sixth. And I think Michael won. But we tried. I felt so much better having tried than to sit there and run right behind my teammate and not have tried.”
Even though Hendrick Motorsports prides itself on a spirit of cooperation between its teams, when it comes down to the final laps, it’s every man for himself, particularly when the championship is on the line.
“I think that’s the mentality that you have to have, and we are one great company that we all try to work for and try to improve and help,” Earnhardt said. “But when it comes down to individual races, you’ve got to do everything you can for the guys that are putting your car together.
“And you want it, too. I definitely need to move forward. I need to get into the next round. We want to get into the next round, and we can’t worry about anybody else to make that happen.”
This time Labonte means it
Terry Labonte sounded serious and sincere on Saturday morning at Talladega Superspeedway when he said Sunday’s GEICO 500 would be his last race in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Labonte had contracted to run the four 2014 superspeedway races in Frank Stoddard’s No. 32 Ford, and Sunday’s event is the last on his schedule.
“Of course, you know it’s only about the third time I’ve said this is going to be my last race, but this is really going to be the last one,” Labonte said. “It’s been fun. I’ve enjoyed running a few races on and off here the past few years with Frank and his team and C&J Energy as a sponsor.
“Those guys, C&J, are originally from Corpus Christi and headquartered in Houston now, so they’re guys I’ve known for a long time and it’s been fun to run a few races with them. I’ve always looked forward to coming to Talladega. We have a couple of wins down here and it’s a track, as everybody knows, if you stay out of trouble and stay on the lead lap you’ve got an opportunity for a decent finish.”
Labonte made his Cup debut at Darlington in 1978, and he waxed nostalgic when he recalled his first ride in Billy Hagan’s No. 92 Chevrolet.
“They had a rookie meeting and they showed a video that they played of all the things not to do,” Labonte recalled. “I was sitting there watching that thing, and the guy that starred in that video was the guy that drove the car I was driving, the year before.
“So everything he did wrong they pointed out in that video. So I sat there and I thought to myself, ‘Oh my gosh, the car is identical. It’s the same paint scheme, same number, everything.’ So I sat right there and thought, ‘The thing to do is not make next year’s video. Don’t make all the highlights of the things not to do.’”
That wasn’t the end of it. Labonte also had to prove himself on the race track before he could compete in the Southern 500.
“So they had a rookie test and we had to go run around the track, and you missed qualifying the first day. You had to qualify the second day, so I qualified, and the longest race I think I’d ever run was a 200-lapper around a half-mile track, so I started that race and I just ran and ran and thought, ‘My gosh these guys could wreck down here. Holy smoke.’ They tore up a bunch of cars, and it was typical Darlington. It was wild.
“So I ran and the race lasted forever. That was the longest race I ever ran in my life, so we ran the race and I finally looked up to see how many laps were left. I was trying to figure out how many laps were left and finally the thing ended and I never thought to look at the scoreboard and I finished fourth.”
Kenseth to the rear
After a precautionary engine change on Saturday, Matt Kenseth will start from the rear of the field in Sunday’s GEICO 500.
Kenseth’s crew found issues in the bottom of the engine and made the change, rather than risk a failure during the race. Kenseth currently is ninth in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings, one point behind Kasey Kahne and one position away from transferring to the Eliminator Round of the Chase.
In Saturday afternoon’s knockout qualifying session, Kenseth was 13th, but his result in time trials affects only his choice of pit stalls, since the engine change requires that he drop to the rear for the start of the race.
NASCAR Wire Service, Reid Spencer