Atlanta: Dale Earnhardt Jr race report

Dale Jr. and No. 8 Budweiser Team grab second-straight top three finish. Former Winston Cup champions Bobby Labonte and Jeff Gordon dueled to an exciting one-two finish today in the MBNA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Labonte has now won six...

Dale Jr. and No. 8 Budweiser Team grab second-straight top three finish.

Former Winston Cup champions Bobby Labonte and Jeff Gordon dueled to an exciting one-two finish today in the MBNA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Labonte has now won six races at the 1.54-mile Atlanta track, the fastest circuit on the Winston Cup tour. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 8 Budweiser team finished third, moving up eight positions into the top-10 in Winston Cup points. The Bud team started the day in 37th position, but it took Dale Jr. only 37 laps to pass 27 cars and move into the top 10. Once among the leaders, Dale Jr. stayed in the top five for much of the rest of the 325-lap race. This is the third consecutive top-five finish and the fourth consecutive top-10 at Atlanta. The team took the lead on lap 186, and held the point position for 23 laps. After four races, the team has now led three races and is tied with Labonte for the most bonus points awarded this season. Since leaving the Rockingham race in 38th position in points, the team has gained 28 positions after a second place at Las Vegas and a third place this afternoon.

The Key Moments: After a harrowing qualifying attempt on Friday, Dale Jr. and the red No. 8 started near the back of the field, but were able to slice through much of the pack in tandem with Jeff Gordon. Race day started on a sour note, as the team was unable to hear Dale Jr. on the radio. A faulty switch was the culprit, but Dale Jr. was able to get the switch working 50 laps into the race. (The team wired a completely new radio system, including a back-up helmet for Dale Jr., but did not need to put it into place.) After grabbing a top-10 spot in less than 40 laps of racing, it took another 25 laps to climb into the top-five. The team took the lead on lap 186 when they opted not to make a pit stop while much of the field pulled in for service, and held the front spot until the team made a stop on lap 209. For the final 100 laps, Earnhardt Jr. battled back and forth with Labonte, Gordon, points leader Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart, who finished in top five.

Dale Jr's Quotes:

About being third while Gordon and Labonte were battling side-by-side with less than 15 laps to go: "I'll tell ya, Bobby Labonte has some nerve. He made some good moves. They were racing hard, and I was hoping they'd race side-by-side some more so I could get up there with them, but I'm not sure we had anything for those two guys. Bobby was fast all day, and because of the aerodynamics of these cars, once they (Labonte and Gordon) were out in front, you couldn't do much with 'em. It was all about who could get off pit lane first. I wasn't sure I could get past Matt (Kenseth) on the restart (with 15 laps to go), but I somehow got around him and then just hung on for third. The lapped cars were vicious (on the restarts). I thought we were all gonna wreck on few of the restarts."

About starting so far back: "I wasn't very confident in our set-up before the race started. It just felt awkward. We tried some new things (Friday) and they didn't work. With the new (Monte Carlo) body style, none of our old set-ups worked, so we kind of went from one extreme to another. We made the car better and better yesterday (during the final practice session), and Tony Jr. (Eury, car chief) insisted we were gonna be good. I was convinced that I was gonna drive down into turn one on the first lap and spin out. My butt was feeling pretty confident after two laps, but took another lap or so for it to register in my brain... It felt good on the first lap and it was damn fast all day. We were passing people left and right, and Jeff (Gordon) and I moved up together from the back to the front. This is such a fun track -- you can race so hard side-by-side and choose the groove where your car is working. Near the end of the race, if I hit my marks in turn three, I could really get through three & four great, but if I missed my mark, it'd just plow."

Best Radio Conversations

After spending the first 50 laps in silence due to a faulty radio switch, Dale Jr. made up for the delay by talking almost non-stop during the first yellow flag period of the day beginning on lap 133. With a very fast car, his confidence and sense of humor is evident...

Dale Jr: "I hate the change you made to my (drinking) water (inside the car). I hate this bag of water. Wherever it is inside this car, it's not anywhere cool..."

Eury Jr. (car chief): "10-4. We changed it on ya, but we'll change it back to your thermos for ya next time."

Dale Jr (half teasing): "Yeah, no one consulted me on this change. I'm the boss in here and I didn't approve any change. Lemme tell ya, Pops (Tony Eury, crew chief) told me way back in the Busch Series days that if I could touch it, I was in charge of it and if it's wrong, it's my fault. So, I'm sayin' it sucks and we're changing back."

Tony Jr: "10-4. We'll put it back."

Dale Jr. (still irritated) "I can't get anything out of it without chewing through the tube..."

Ty Norris (spotter, joking): "Junior, I think Pops meant that you should stop bitchin' about the things you can't control..."

Dale Jr: "He said if it was something in the car that I could touch -- my seat belts or whatever -- that I was in charge of it, and I was the boss. I figure I'm in the right here and crew member X is in the wrong."

Norris (perhaps trying to change the subject): "OK, on this restart, look for (teammate) Steve (Park). He's a lap down but he can hang with the leaders on the restarts."

Dale Jr; "Ty -- what the hell does that have to do with with me or this Bud red team?"

Norris: "I was just tellin' ya what I saw..."

Dale Jr: (now just playin' only for laughs): "Well then you need to join the fan club...`(long silence) Y'all gotta admit that was a good one. I was just tryin' to give y'all something to laugh about there..."

When the yellow flag flew again on lap 145, Dale Jr. asked how many laps were left...

Dale Jr. "What!? How many? I thought this was like 267 laps or something... I wish that this race was over with and we could get us some good points. I mean, damn, I wanna win bad, but I'm sittin' here thinkin' 'third... third... third... that's a good points day.' I wanna win, but that 18 car (B. Labonte) is gone... gone!"

During the last yellow flag of the day... Dale Jr. can't resist another joke about the water bottle in the car...

Dale Jr:`"OK, I'm goin' for it. If we win, we win. But, if we don't, I'm ridin' back to airport with you guys..."

Tony Jr: "Just for the record, we're not pitting here..."

Dale Jr.: "Hey! How 'bout something nice to drink at the end of this race? I've been drinkin' this warm water that's worse than toilet water... (pause for comedic effect)... I'd like something fruity and nice... something cold... In fact, anything would be better than this (stuff)."

Three Doors Down... Dale Jr. will tape an appearance this week in a music video with the band Three Doors Down... Dale Jr. was featured last year in the video "Steve McQueen" with Sheryl Crow.

Fast Drive-Through: The Budweiser No. 8 team won Round 3 of the "McDonald's Drive-Thru Pit Championship" last Sunday at the Las Vegas 400. Earnhardt spent 225 seconds in the pits, edging his Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammate Michael Waltrip by 12 seconds. The victory was worth $20,000 to the Bud team. The season-ending top prize is $200,000.

Hot Hot Hot: Since the second race at Bristol last season, the Bud team has recorded eight top-five finishes in the last 17 races.

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Jeff Gordon , Matt Kenseth , Bobby Labonte , Tony Stewart , Michael Waltrip