Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson share their comeback strategies.
CONCORD, N.C. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson are both looking forward to the Bank of America 500 – but for different reasons.
Earnhardt is pumped because he knows the No. 88 Chevy had speed last week at Kansas.
Johnson’s confidence stems from a stellar record at Charlotte Motor Speedway where he leads all current competitors with seven wins – including in May where he led 164 of 400 laps.
However, with the two Hendrick Motorsports teammates currently in the Chase cellar after wrecks at Kansas last weekend, they will need their A-games over the next two races.
You don’t have a chance to sit still in this sport.
“We feel like if we came back with the May setup in the car, we’d probably be two or three more tenths off,” said Johnson, who hasn’t led a lap since Michigan in August. “It seems that we are taking track records down by a couple of tenths, even from a spring race to a fall race.
“I would imagine that would show true again here today. You don’t have a chance to sit still in this sport. You have to keep moving and progressing your race cars.”
Not resting on his laurels
Before last Sunday’s 40th-place finish, Johnson has been consistent. His 12th-place finish at Chicagoland was his only result outside of the top 10 which included four top fives. But Johnson admits, “We are just not where we want to be – bottom line.”
What you have accomplished in the past doesn’t buy you a damn thing for the present.
“We’re working very hard to get there,” Johnson added. “This sport is not forgiving. What you have accomplished in the past doesn’t buy you a damn thing for the present. You have to go out there and earn it, and make the most of it.
“We’ve been a third to fifth place car, and we can finish there and run there, but we haven’t been a dominant car. We are certainly hoping that when we come to tracks that have been very good for the No. 48, that we’re able to find that little bit. Find that extra tenth that put us in that position and get our mojo going the right way.”
Slow and steady wins the race
Charlotte is certainly a track where Johnson can make that happen. Half of his 26 career starts on the 1.5-mile track have resulted in top-five finishes. His average qualifying effort of 7.1 tops all competitors.
“The mindset is really to come in and try to take a trophy out of here,” Johnson said. “That really solves our problem in the points that we have right now. If we can’t, we still need to focus on finishing as high as we can. And, the reason that leaves a little bit of hope is that if you miss the big ones in Talladega, you could assume that some of the Chasers will be involved in one or two of those, and you might have another chance.
“It is a fading chance, in the position I’m in I believe, but it is still an opportunity and it is something for us to consider. We’re here to try and win the race, but if we can’t, we still need to finish well, and hope we have some luck down in Talladega.”
Going for it
Although Earnhardt has never won at his home track, he can’t “worry about” Johnson – or Brad Keselowski, who is currently 10th, just three points ahead of the No. 88 team. He knows that both drivers have the potential to win anywhere on any given weekend.
His best strategy is to simply run his own race.
You can’t really go into Talladega with the same confidence because it’s such a lottery there on how in the hell you are going to finish.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“I can’t say what are my odds and what are Jimmie’s and what are Brad’s,” Earnhardt said. “I just have to go try to win this race. I know that is what they have to do. I’ve got to just kind of throw them into the mix with every other driver out there because it’s really not a matter of who is going to climb out of the hole. It’s just who is going to show up Saturday night and win the race.
“You can’t really go into Talladega with the same confidence because it’s such a lottery there on how in the hell you are going to finish. I want to make it happen now. I feel like I’ve got a better chance today, this week than I do in Talladega even with the success we’ve had there.”
Talladega is by far Earnhardt’s best track with five-career Cup wins – but the last was a decade ago. He finished second on the 2.6-mile superspeedway last year in the Chase but 26th in the spring. In his last 19 starts the results have been inconsistent.
Charlotte has also been a mixed bag for Earnhardt. His best finish was third in 2004 and he hasn’t had a top five at the track since 2008 – his first year with Hendrick Motorsports.
“There are two kinds of approaches and they are both equally as nerve racking,” Earnhardt said of his strategy for the Contender round. “The one approach is to run well and hope that nothing bad happens and the other approach is if something has happened you can really just kind of go for broke.
“I feel less pressure now I think than I did before the race at Kansas. Even I think if we had run in the top five last week I think today still under the circumstances now I still feel less pressure for some reason – it’s weird. I just think that we have a shot and I feel good about it. I think our team is good. I think we are good enough. I think we should go out there and win. I believe we will.”