Top-10 For Dale Jr. at Darlington; Strong Finish Pulls Budweiser Team into Second Place in Points DARLINGTON, S.C. (March 21, 2004) 0x2022 Jimmie Johnson beat Bobby Labonte in a four-lap dash to the finish in Sunday's Carolina Dodge Dealers 400...
Top-10 For Dale Jr. at Darlington; Strong Finish Pulls Budweiser Team into Second Place in Points
DARLINGTON, S.C. (March 21, 2004) 0x2022 Jimmie Johnson beat Bobby Labonte in a four-lap dash to the finish in Sunday's Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 at Darlington Raceway. Johnson was one of 11 leaders on the day but was out front when it counted most. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 8 Budweiser team started strong, faded midway through the 400-mile race, and rallied at the end to finish the day in 10th position. It is Dale Jr.'s fourth top-10 of the season in the first five races. More importantly, he bypassed Tony Stewart for second place in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup championship point standings and cut into Matt Kenseth's point lead. He trails Kenseth by only 21 points as Kenseth and Earnhardt Jr. are the only drivers with two victories and four top-10 finishes this season.
The Key Moments: Starting on the outside pole, Dale Jr. led 18 of the first 76 laps around the 1.33-mile oval. But in contrast to the opening stages, the handling on the Budweiser Chevrolet began to fade midway through the race. Dale Jr. slipped out of the top 10, brushed the wall twice and fell a lap down. A 'lucky-dog' break on lap 150 put Dale Jr. back on the lead lap, and he began to claw his way through the field. Dale Jr. found himself in 12th place for a lap-289 restart. In the final sprint, he drove passed Jeff Burton and Greg Biffle to end the day with a tenth-place finish.
Dale Jr. Quotes: "Bad car, great team. We were decent at times today but I'd say we struggled more than we went forward. I owe the top-10 finish to my guys in the pits. They were great- they got me a lot of spots on pit road. That's incredibly important when you can't pass anyone on the track. We did not have a top-10 car today, but we were smart and came back from being a lap down. We took advantage of the timing of the yellow flags, got the "lucky dog" pass one time (allowed to rejoin the lead lap under a yellow flag period), so we made the most of what we had. Overall, it was a good day in points."
"(With the new SAFER barriers), it made it wild in turns one and two. I mean, it was so narrow, so tight, that there were crazy things happenin' there all day. It was wild... The wall had a huge impact in that area, especially for me when the car was jumping around and wanting to spin out and throw me into the wall. (Looking at the right side of the Budweiser car) Look at that - not too bad. We hit the wall a few times, but our car looks good compared to some of these other boys (points to other cars being loaded into transporters). Hey (pointing toward number nine car of Kasey Kahne), I think we were finally able to beat that boy today!"
Best Radio Conversation:
When the fourth yellow flag waved for Kasey Kahne's wreck on lap 144, it put Dale Jr. back on the lead lap after a brief stay with the lap-down cars.
Stevie Reeves (spotter): "You're the lucky dog."
Dale Jr.: "Copy that, lucky dog. (Tony) Junior, let's go all the way back to the beginning... Come on man, stay in this with me. I want to get this car fixed."
On lap 274 the eighth caution flag waved:
Reeves: "Cautions out."
Dale Jr.: "Whooo...(exhale) Thank God!"
Under the ninth caution and waiting for the final restart, Dale Jr.
became quite impatient in the delay to return to racing.
Dale Jr.: "I ain't done nothing smart all day. Just one of those days."
Reeves: "Welcome to Darlington."
Dale Jr.: "Damn, let's go, whatever happened to a quickie yellow? We're just wasting laps (under caution.)"
Tony Jr.: "They (NASCAR) just now said quickie yellow (after the field had already been under caution for two laps)."
Dale Jr.: "What's quickie about this? We're gonna have only two laps to go by the time we go green."
Tony Jr.: "We're gonna have about four."
Dale Jr.: "God I hate this. We should be racing."
At race's end, Dale Jr. gave credit where credit was due.
Dale Jr.: "Good job on pit road. That was where it was at today."
Started: 2nd (fourth top-10 start of 2004)
Finished: 10th (fourth top-10 finish of 2004)
Points: 2nd place (improved one spot, 21 points behind leader)
Best Pit Stop: Stop 1 of 9 / lap 11 / four tires & fuel / 12.29 seconds