Earnhardt began the weekend in somewhat of a deep hole managing to qualify only 32nd on Friday. He would battle back from that poor starting spot after the green flag feel on Sunday. He was inside top 20 by lap 50 and into the top 10 85 laps in to the 500-lap race. Earnhardt was able to make it into the top ten by the time first half of the race had ended, but suddenly seemed to stall.
Crew chief Steve Letarte started searching for the right adjustments to make Earnhardt Jr.’s Chevrolet a top-five contender and in the races final stages, Earnhardt made a total of five pit stops. Suddenly Earnhardt was able to begin working his way forward.
"I have to give all the credit to Steve Letarte,” Earnhardt said. “He made a couple, two, three great pit calls there at the end, and gave us the opportunity to get some guys on some old tires, and beat a few guys that we probably weren't going to beat. Great call by him.”
Those great calls culminated in a stop on lap 349 when Letarte called for a two tire stop. That gave Earnhardt a 13th place restart. He was able to avoid trouble and at the end of the day came home an impressive sixth place. After the race, Earnhardt was quick to give the credit to his Hendrick Motorsports crew chief.
“The track was really tightening up fast and caught us off guard and we weren’t really ready for it but we made some great changes at the end and Steve had some great strategy on the tires and we were able to salvage a good finish,” Earnhardt said. “We got the car running better and I have to give the car a lot of credit, but Steve deserves the most credit because the strategy that he ran there in the last 150 laps really got us our track position.”
Earnhardt added that in addition to avoiding trouble, the key to his success Sunday was the great pit calls.
“There were two or three that really allowed us to get in position to get a decent finish,” he said. “We had a lot of attrition today too as a lot of guys wrecked out and that certainly makes your day easier when you aren’t racing the whole field out there. So we have to do a little bit better and I am not real satisfied with the overall performance but what Steve does on pit road is magic every week. He is pretty sharp.”
Most importantly for Earnhardt, after his fourth consecutive top ten finish he moved up to second in the championship standings only 9 markers out of first as the series heads to Auto Club Speedway for next Sunday’s Auto Club 500 a race that Earnhardt finished third in last season. While it may be early in the season, if driver and crew chief continue to work as well as they did Sunday, Earnhardt could remain a legitimate title contender for some time to come.