Not satisfied with finishing fourth on Saturday, Junior calls on team to address handling issues with his intermediate cars
CONCORD, N.C. – If Dale Earnhardt Jr. wants a shot at finally winning the Coca-Cola 600, his Steve Letarte-led crew will have to determine what went wrong on Saturday night.
“We really were trying to figure out how we can improve to get better for the 600,” Earnhardt said. “I know the guys will work hard all week and try to get us a little more front grip and a little more speed. We made some adjustments and got it better at the end, obviously.”
Yes, Earnhardt finished a respectable fourth in the Sprint All-Star race. But it was clear that the No. 88 Chevy -- a former Michigan-winning chassis -- wasn’t up to his standards. Throughout the evening, the driver complained repeatedly about certain nuances with the car to his crew.
"It's good at the end of the run but that’s too late," Earnhardt said early in the event. That sentiment was followed by “this (freakin’) thing don't turn…I can’t run the top,” which was inevitably where All-Star Race winner Jamie McMurray found his speed on Saturday night.
After Lap 60, the race sounded more like a test session for Earnhardt. He told Letarte, “This place has gotten really ripply on the concrete through the corners, think about that with the shock absorbers…they’re getting more and more worse, think about that for next week.”
With a zero-for-28 record at his hometown track, it’s not surprising that Earnhardt is a little restless at Charlotte. Yes, he won The Winston (2000) in his debut – but that was 70 laps. Then there was his victory in the 2012 Showdown, where Earnhardt went on to finish fifth in the All-Star Race.
In point races, however, Earnhardt has endured his share of heartbreak. Last year, Earnhardt’s engine expired after just 256 laps. In 2011, the No. 88 Chevy was at the point in overtime on Lap 401. He ran out of gas on the next lap and finished seventh.
With the cool temperatures on Saturday, it’s not surprising that Earnhardt “fought a tight car all night”.
“It was really fast,” Earnhardt said. “Hopefully, it’s a little warmer for the 600 and greases up the track a little bit and definitely makes the track a lot wider than it was (on Saturday night),” Earnhardt said. “It was plenty wide, but we need it to grease up a little bit to where I enjoy driving it a little better.”
With bigger tracks such as Texas, Darlington and Kansas on the schedule leading up to Charlotte, the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team has “been trying to improve front grip”, according to Earnhardt. Recently he has “been giving up a lot of front speed going into the corner”.
Despite not finishing at Texas, Earnhardt posted a career-best second at Darlington and was fifth last weekend in Kansas. Still, he was far from satisfied with the feel of his car at either Kansas or Charlotte.
“I’ve been driving a damn dump truck for two weeks,” Earnhardt told his crew midway through the race. He later laughed about the comment and said it was more diplomatic than referring to his car as a "P.O.S.".
On Saturday, Earnhardt struggled with “rolling through the center of the corner trying to get back to the gas” as he kept sliding his right front tire of his Chevy up the track. He called the lack of front grip “an extreme issue”.
With intermediate tracks comprising more than half of the Chase races, Earnhardt knows the team must fine tune their program in order to be contenders for the title come September. Earnhardt believes if problems aren't tackled quickly, “things will just remain the same.” Still, given his confidence in Letarte, Earnhardt is certain the crew will address the problem before the team returns to contest the Coca-Cola 600.
“We’ll look at everything we’re doing with the front end (geometry) of the car,” Earnhardt said. “It’s all firewall forward stuff. Steve and the guys will definitely come back with a different package. We’ll come back with a different car, too. I think it’s a brand new car, too, and that’s always a plus.
“We need to improve a little bit, and I think we understand that and we're going to work hard all week. I feel pretty confident going into the 600 weekend with the improvements we'll have on the car.”