Sonoma has never been on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s “favorites” list. In fact he once said he would “blow it up”, if he could. After Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Save-Mart 350 however he may want to hold off lighting the fuse.
Prior to Sunday the best career finish Earnhardt had scored at the California road course once known as Sears Point was 11th three times. Sunday it was almost as if a different driver was behind the wheel of the No. 88 Chevy. Earnhardt started 17th but unlike years past he was soon charging forward and running inside the top five. His move forward however was not without incident.
On lap 75 Earnhardt was racing up through the field shortly after a restart when he made contact with Matt Kenseth at turn 8. Kesneth’s Toyota was sent hard into a tire barrier. Kenseth was uninjured but his day was done. Kenseth said he knew Earnhardt was near.
“On the restart we were side-by-side and I got him going into (turn) seven and left him plenty of room when we were racing side-by-side,” Kenseth said. “He tapped me on my right rear and wrecked me. I don’t know if he got out of the groove with his car -- I don’t really know what happened and it doesn’t matter at this point. “
A few laps later Earnhardt came off turn 11 and tangled with AJ Allmendinger who had led 35 laps to that point. Allmendinger spun and although he was able to continue, he never fully recovered and finished the day 37th.
“We led a lot of laps today and we were good enough to win the thing no doubt,” Allmendinger said. “It's just disappointing the way our day ended and to leave Sonoma with a car that's tore up.”
Earnhardt however was able to continue and took four tires during stops under caution on lap 81 while most of the leaders stayed out. Earnhardt charged through the field and when the checkered flag fell, Earnhardt finished a career best third.
After he climbed from his car, his thoughts were on his incident with Kenseth.
"I am sick at my stomach getting into Matt (Kenseth) there,” he said. “I just hopped that curb, and it threw me right into him. I shouldn't have been running him hard I guess, I just got up on that curb and it just launched me over into the side of his car.”
Later he talked about the incident with Allmendinger.
“I thought I gave him enough room on the outside,” Earnhardt said. “He had a lot of wheel, we're coming out of that corner and his right front poking out like that jumped the left rear of my car, and I felt it yank on the car real hard and looked in the mirror, and I thought he and about 10 other cars were wrecking, and I thought the caution was coming out.”
“I don't know how bad it was for him,” Earnhardt added. “But I had just got around him and we got down into that corner and I ran low protecting my line, he shot to the outside and that's his prerogative. But I thought I gave him enough room. I didn't think I ran him in the fence.”
At the end of the day though, Earnhardt could smile after a somewhat surprising run at a track he has openly not been a fan of.
“Aside from holding a trophy, this is like a win for us,” Earnhardt said. “We came in here and knew we had a good car throughout practice, and I've been in the top 10 in a lot of these races with two or three laps to go, but we've just never been able to finish. So to be clear of the mess and just have an advantage with the tires at the end, there was a lot of confidence.”
Earnhardt added that for once his trip to Sonoma was enjoyable.
“The car was fun to drive all weekend, had a great time in practice, qualifying was fun,” he said. “I thought we could have qualified a lot better, but still, the cars have been fun to drive. We've been one of the better cars, and that certainly makes it fun with me not having to be defensive and root and gouge for every little spot.”
At the other road course on the NASCAR circuit, Watkins Glen in New York, Earnhardt usually runs a little better; there he has two top five finishes.
“I really enjoy running at Watkins Glen, and I feel like that I understand what I need to do,” Earnhardt said. “Not whether I do it every lap but what I need to do to get around there and what I'm looking for in the car to be competitive. “
He points out though that Sonoma is a different track.
“This is a real technical track where the corners are lined up one after the other,” he said. “If you make a mistake in Turn 2, you really don't clean it up until Turn 4. So everything sort of has to line up and the really need to put the corners together in succession, and that takes a certain mentality and a certain understanding of road course racing that guys like myself don't have coming from late models and oval tracks and stuff like that.”
Earnhardt said that one of the keys to his success Sunday, in addition to his own confidence was the car prepared by his Hendrick Motorsports team.
“This place is really technical, and if the car is just a little bit off, I sort of get lost as to what I need and what I want the car to do and how I need the car to drive and what I'm looking for in the car,” Earnhardt said. “We sort of ‑‑ when we get off the path in practice, we really never recover throughout the weekend, but we were fast all weekend and just kind of put it together.”