It may have been his best starting spot at Watkins Glen since 2008, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. wasn’t quite able to turn it into a visit to victory lane Sunday. Earnhardt started the NASCAR Sprint Cup series Cheez-It 355 in seventh on the 2.45 mile road course but wasn’t able to duplicate his success on the Sonoma road course earlier in the season.
His finish was able to vault him to the top of the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings though.
NASCAR’s most popular driver started seventh and was moving forward when the first caution came out on lap 9. From there he was able to stay inside the top 10 until lap 50 when a caution stirred up pit strategies for the Hendrick Motorsports team.
Crew chief Steve Letarte chose to leave Earnhardt under the caution while most of the leaders pitted. The move put the No. 88 Chevy second for the restart. A few laps later , on lap 56, a massive crash involving Ryan Newman and Michael McDowell messed up Letarte’s strategy. It also brought the field to a halt under the red flag for nearly 90 minutes.
When the caution finally came back out under the caution, Earnhardt Jr. was forced to pit needing fuel and four tires . Many teams opted to stay on track or take fuel only, Earnhardt Jr. sending him a back to 23rd for a restart with 32 laps to go. Earnhardt Jr. made his way through the field, and was 12th when a caution came out with 12 laps to go. The restart saw Earnhardt’s Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson spinning in turn 1.
After the races third red flag, caused when Denny Hamlin crashed into sand barriers at the end of pit road, Earnhardt Jr. restarted ninth with only two laps remaining. Starting in the inside lane, Earnhardt Jr. drifted back two positions to cross the finish line 11th. Points leader at the start of the day and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon suffered electrical issues and finished 34th. The finishes put Earnhardt at the top of the standings. Already the top seed in the Chase with three wins, Earnhardt now leads the standings by five points over Gordon.
“The strategy bit us there. We probably should of come,” Earnhardt said. “Steve and I think we probably should have come and got tires there. That last stop a couple of guys on new tires beat us. We had a good fast car, real good speed, just got caught out on that strategy there and didn’t finish in the top five. We had a good enough car to.”