LONG POND, Pa. – No driver is happier to see the calendar flip to June than Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Of the four races held in May, the No. 88 Axalta Chevrolet team finished no higher than 14th. They also crashed in two of those of the four events. It was a rough month, the Hendrick Motorsports driver admits, but as he enters Pocono Raceway, a track he swept in 2014, he’s not yet hitting the panic button when it comes to trying to win a race.
“No, I’m not feeling any anxiety. At 41 years old you kind of get over that stuff; I’m not going to worry about it,” Earnhardt Jr. said on Friday. “I spent the first 18 years worrying myself to death. I think we are good enough to make (the Chase) whether we get a win or not, we’re a good enough team.
“That is not a guarantee; I just feel confident that we’ll get in. A win would be what we expect, not just to lock ourselves in the Chase, we just expect to win. We’ve got a couple of years now of multiple win seasons, and we expect to go and win races.”
The 2016 season started off well enough. Earnhardt Jr. posted three top-eight finishes in the first five races and had three runner-up efforts through the first 10. The Monday after Dover (where he was collected in a crash while not running particularly well), Earnhardt Jr. went on his weekly The Dale Jr. Download podcast and said, “we have a problem, Houston.”
Looking back, even if he could pinpoint where the team has been getting beat by the competition, he’s not going to throw anyone under the bus.
“It’s just a combination of dozens of things doing everything right, preparing and working hard,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Somebody’s got to win, and somebody’s got to lose. You are not always going to be the fastest guy. You just keep coming to the racetrack and showing up and trying to find that advantage that no one else has.”
Although he’s winless with 12 regular season races remaining, Earnhardt Jr. is not only confident he’ll make the Chase but be competitive. Sitting 13th in points entering the Axalta “We Paint Winners” 400 (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, FS1), the weekend is another chance to gain on things. Certainly in the age of the Chase, Earnhardt Jr. understands the importance of teams improving their program during the year to hit their stride for the final 10 weeks.
Citing examples, Earnhardt Jr. mentioned Tony Stewart struggling all of 2011 before clicking off five wins and earning his third championship. A year later, Hendrick was the class of the field, but Brad Keselowski walked away the champion. Even last season, Joe Gibbs Racing worked furiously to find speed and grabbed numerous wins in the Chase.
“I can see us sort of in that situation where we’re looking across the garage. Every team has enough smart people on it and if they figure out how somebody is making their mousetrap so well they’ll take it home and do it and make it even better,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “They’ll take those ideas that are great and improve on them and then bring it to the track and outrun that guy. That is the nature of the sport.”
Which is why he’s not yet worried and believes the turnaround could come sooner rather than later.
“I think we should run great here. I’m not so much worried about end of the race results. I’m more concerned with consistent speed in the car and running up front throughout the day and having consistency on pit road and in the racecar,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I think we can do that this weekend and going forward”
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