Dale Earnhardt Jr. came within a half a lap of winning his second NASCAR Sprint Cup series win of 2014 Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Earnhardt’s Hendrick Motorsports crew took a chance by leaving him out during a late pit stop hoping that the No. 88 Chevy would have enough fuel to make it to the end.
It turned out there wasn’t. But it was oh so close.
The No. 88 Chevy sputtered on the backstretch on the final lap, just enough to allow Brad Keselowski past. The engine did re-fire but Earnhardt didn’t have enough speed to catch Keselowski and had to settle for second.
“It sucks to lose like that,” Earnhardt said on pit road right after climbing from his car.
Earnhardt stayed out during the final caution period on lap 220 while the leaders came in. He kept the lead as the laps wound down with the only pressure coming from Keselowski. Earnhardt tried to save fuel but Keselowski caught him with 10 laps to go and Earnhardt was forced to race him. In the end the gamble didn’t pay off and Earnhardt was left in second. Later Earnhardt said that the team was able to gamble due to their win in the season opening Daytona 500. Thanks to NASCAR’s new playoff system, the win all but assured Earnhardt a spot in the Chase allowing him and the team to go for broke every race.
“Sure does. And that's a great point,” Earnhardt said. “I think everybody has seen that over the last couple of weeks, that this format has definitely allowed teams to gamble like we have.”
“You know, it did pay off.,” he added. “Not the ultimate prize, but we did run second. We weren't going to -- as much as you want to win, and believe me, we were out there trying to win, you do take pride in a good performance, a good finish, and we weren't going to run in the top 5 if we hadn't have used that particular strategy, if we'd have run the same strategy as our competitors we would have probably run just inside the top 10 where we were all day.”
Earnhardt said the difference Sunday was getting in clean air thanks to the pit stop gamble.
“I just couldn't get any ground, and we fought the car all day,” Earnhardt said. “Just the air is so dirty behind everybody, the further back you get you've got less and less grip. Once we got the lead, it was like driving a Cadillac.”
In the final laps, Earnhardt knew he needed to save fuel and was doing everything he could.
“I was lifting real early trying to save even more.,” he said. “We figured we were a lap short, and I was lifting early and let Brad get there, and I felt like if we were good enough to hold him off, then we'd win the race. If we weren't, we would have saved enough fuel to have finished the race, at least get to the end. I can run out of gas on the back stretch and be okay, but if I run out off of 4 coming to the white it would've been big trouble, so I had to save a little bit. So I let him catch us and once he got there, I ran as hard as I could and could pull back away from him.”
Earnhardt said that had he not run out of fuel, the win would have been his.
“As soon as I got to the top of 1 and 2 the last several laps,” Earnhardt said. “I was real comfortable that he wasn't going to get to me, felt fine about if we had enough gas we weren't going to have a problem. But we didn't have enough gas.”
While losing on the last lap might “suck”, later Earnhardt was able to reflect on his third second place finish in the last ten races dating back to last season and look only at the positives.
“The gamble didn't pay off ultimately, but we were able to run in the top 5,” he said. “We weren't going to do that, and with the strategy we were on and everybody else was on, it was a good strategy and gave us a chance to win. We definitely wouldn't have took that gamble had we not had the new points system, so we were able to really take advantage of that. Steve (crew chief Steve Letarte) is already going for broke, and he's having a fun time. It hurts to lose like that. We'd definitely love to be in victory lane right now, but our time will come. We'll keep going.”