By Matt Weaver (JOLIET, Ill.) — Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 11th in the Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday afternoon, overcoming a difficult weekend where he wasn’t happy with the performance of his car until the drop of the green flag.
While he felt satisfied with the outcome, Earnhardt believes he had at least a fifth-place car and would have finished closer to the front if not for a series of disappointing restarts.
“This has been a real tough weekend,” Earnhardt told reporters after the race. “I was really really concerned. We had a real bad (third practice session) and Steve (Letarte) and those guys worked all night, stayed up on the computer and looked over the notes and we ended up with a good car — a top-5 car.”
Fifth is exactly where Earnhardt ran for most of the second half of the race and restarted there on a reset with 17 laps to go. Earnhardt found himself on the inside line and lost positions when the lane backed up, allowing drivers with fresher tires to come up and challenge him for position.
The same thing once again happened on the final restart with seven laps remaining and Earnhardt fell outside of the top-10 as a result.
“Restarting on the inside in fifth was a little bit tough,” Earnhardt said. “The outside is where I wanted to be on restarts. The guys behind us got tires and we got beat by a couple of those guys. If you told me that we would have finished 11th this morning, I would have took it. We didn’t have a good car at all and it was one of the worst practices we’ve ever had all year.”
Earnhardt added that he felt like his team was capable of at least finishing in the top-12 at the next two races at both Dover and New Hampshire, thus advancing them to the next round where better tracks like Kansas, Talladega and Charlotte await.
The first thing that Earnhardt did upon climbing out of his car was check the championship standings via FanVision to ensure that he was still in the safe zone in regards to advancing after New Hampshire. He leaves Chicagoland fifth in the standings and 13 points over 13th place Ryan Newman.
“I just want to get through the first three races and put as much points as I can on those other guys,” Earnhardt said. “You want to gain as much ground over 13th as possible. I don’t want to wish bad luck on anybody but you want to look at the points just to access who did what, who is struggling and who had a bad day.
“Out of the four rounds, the first will be the easiest to advance but we don’t take anything for granted.”
Later in the day, Letarte added that he hadn’t seen the points but he felt confident that his team could advance purely on the merit of three top-15 finishes. He agreed with the assessment of his driver that they eventually ended up with a top-5 car but just got bit by restarts.
“Yeah, we had a top-5 car there at the end and the guys with tires just got us,” Letarte told Popular Speed. “We worked on the car all weekend and we tried a lot of different things. I’m proud of my team and I’m proud of Dale and I think we are in a good spot to advance with this run.”