CONCORD, NC - Dale Earnhardt, Jr. entered the Coca-Cola 600 a mere twenty points behind leader Matt Kenseth in series rankings. The No. 8 DEI Chevrolet team anticipated being able to either close the gap on Kenseth or take over the top spot.
CONCORD, NC - Dale Earnhardt, Jr. entered the Coca-Cola 600 a mere twenty points behind leader Matt Kenseth in series rankings. The No. 8 DEI Chevrolet team anticipated being able to either close the gap on Kenseth or take over the top spot. Troubles stopped Earnhardt in his tracks at lap 223, though, when the No. 8 Chevy spun in turn four.
Earnhardt's Chevy was experiencing rear brake rotor woes and had to make several pit stops to try and fix the problem, but to no avail. Eventually the Monte Carlo was forced to the garage in an attempt to replace the rear brake assembly. Rain, however, dimmed the team's chances of bandaging the wound and enabling Earnhardt to be running at the end of the event. It ends a year-long streak for the No. 8 team; they had been running at the end of 36 consecutive events.
"We were almost ready to go back out there when they called the race," said Earnhardt. "It's a shame that our streak of finishing every race for a full year (this event in 2002 was the team's last DNF) had to end because of rain. We had a good car, but not a great car tonight. The car had been loose for a big chunk of the race, but as I came off of turn four onto the flat part of the straight, the rear wheels locked up and I was spinning.
"It was wild. We kind of brushed the wall - bent the rear bumper a bit, but not too bad. We thought we had it fixed after a few pit stops - and we were still on the lead lap - but the rotors kept locking up. The rotor and the whole assembly on the left rear wheel finally failed and we had to take it to the garage."
Before Earnhardt's brake problems began to glow red in the night sky, other issues plagued the No. 8 team. Mistakes on pit road cost Earnhardt valuable ground early in the race. First, losing time because of difficulties while changing lug nuts, and secondly when Earnhardt was penalized for pitting early.
"I told the guys that we can't expect to be a championship contender if we keep making mistakes on pit stops," said Earnhardt. "But, it happened early in the race, and we had a strong car, so I felt like we were going to be OK. We had a lot of time left to get back up to the front. Then, (car chief) Tony (Eury) Jr. decided we should make an extra stop to top off on fuel, and that strategy worked perfectly.
"The yellow came out on the lap we had planned to stop again, so all of a sudden we're in third place and looking good. It's kind of frustrating because right now we don't know what failed or what caused the problem, but I guess we're still in second place in points."
The DEI team was visibly upset after the miscue on pit road, and a rash of irritation broke out in the pits; including Earnhardt himself when he exited his vehicle during the events initial rain delay.
The flames that shot out the brake rotors later that night and continued to burn brightly until the car was expired were a picturesque punctuation to a team whose "Big Picture" plan to win their first Winston Cup title scooted a little farther away. Disappointing for a team who has worked so diligently to bridge an early points gap.
This is Earnhardt's worst finish so far; he had scored in the top-ten in eight of the last eleven races. Sunday's final tally places him 41st and drops him 160-points from Matt Kenseth in the race for the championship.
Not the end of the world, however, as we come up on tracks where Earnhardt is lightning in a bottle.
This weekend in Dover, he already has one win in the history books, and in six starts has lead over 300 laps at the 1-mile oval despite a 30th place finish in this event last year. The No. 8 DEI team will look to rebound from Charlotte's soggy night and once again inch their way closer to Kenseth.
"We lost some points to Matt (Kenseth, Winston Cup points leader) at the 600, but we are not going to hang our heads and cry about it. We're still thinking everyday about the bigger picture of winning the championship at the end of 36 races. We're only a third of the way there, so we know we can't let up for a second."