Dale Earnhardt Jr. had just stepped out of his race car Saturday night after a miserable performance in the NASCAR All-Star Race and admitted something that many of his fans have felt over the past couple of months:
“I’m a little concerned,” he said.
Earnhardt had talked earlier in the week about what it would mean to win in his final Coca-Cola 600, a historic race on the NASCAR calendar at a place where he’s never won a points race. Granted he was asked the question, but he had led just 10 laps all season and now, after finishing last among those running at the end of the third stage of the All-Star Race, it appears to be a big long shot.
The rough part for Earnhardt, who announced last month that 2017 would be his final NASCAR Cup season, is that he sits 25th in the standings with 15 races left in the regular season. He is 77 points out of the current playoff cutoff, so the question now focuses on whether he must win to make the NASCAR playoffs as the hope of making the 16-driver field on points fades.
“I think we’ve got to win now [to make it],” team owner Rick Hendrick said Tuesday. “A lot of people could start having problems. We’ve just got to do the best we can and let it take care of itself.
“The cars are fast enough to win, so I’m hopeful we can pull it off.”
Earnhardt didn’t want to think about the prospect of having to win to make the playoffs.
“I haven’t had that conversation just yet,” Earnhardt said Thursday. “I’m hoping to not read any tweets or mathematical equations that you guys [in the media] come up with for my situation, because I know it’s not going to be a lot of fun.”
What did Earnhardt say when he was told that Hendrick said he has to win?
“That makes it a lot easier when the boss man tells you what you’ve got to do,” he said. “So I guess I’ve got to win.
“It clears it right up.”
For a driver who grew up in North Carolina, winning the 600-mile race at Charlotte would serve as a great memory. He made his Cup debut in the May 1999 race at Charlotte.
“Winning the 600 would mean a lot,” he said. “I always went to that race as a little kid, so I like to win at the places where I spent tons of time at growing up, and that was one of them.”
To even sniff a shot at winning, Earnhardt will need to have a better performance than he showed Saturday night. He never appeared to have much confidence in the car.
“We ain’t going to bring that one back,” Earnhardt said Saturday night after he finished 18th out of the 20 cars as two cars dropped out before the field was cut from 20 to 10. “Hopefully, it don’t drive like that one. I don’t know how confident to be considering how it drove tonight. It didn’t do very well.”
Was it loose? Was it tight?
“It just sucked,” Earnhardt said. “It was slow. It didn’t turn very well.”
It was another bad day as the pressure builds on Earnhardt and crew chief Greg Ives to perform in Earnhardt’s final Cup season.
“Sometimes when you get the pressure on you, when you start having problems, it just creates more problems,” Hendrick said Tuesday. “Greg knows everybody is looking at him and this is Dale’s last year and you want to give him everything you’ve got and not make any mistakes.
“It’s just one of those things. We just have to take a deep breath and do what we know how to do.”
As with teams in any sport, Earnhardt’s squad just has to stop making mistakes, Hendrick said.
“Some of them are unavoidable, and a lot of them are,” Hendrick said. “Guys are trying to get the pit stops as quick as they can, leaving wheels loose, that happens to a lot of people — and then if you have it one time, you might feel it and expect it to happen.
“Hopefully, we work hard and get all that behind us and he can win a race here real quick and really celebrate his career and go out on top.”
Those mistakes aren’t limited to the crew. Earnhardt blamed himself for his 22nd-place finish May 13 at Kansas, where he pitted thinking he had a loose wheel. He said he should have remembered his notes that they often have vibrations at Kansas that aren’t loose wheels.
“I jumped the gun,” Earnhardt said. “It was my mistake, full responsibility for costing us a lap. … We could have finished in the top 10. The car was real fast.
“It’s frustrating — if I had just talked to myself and be wary of those vibrations, that’s just what you have at that particular race track for some reason, then I might not have been so quick to jump on the loose-wheel bandwagon.”
A solid car but a driver mistake at Kansas was then followed by a car that Earnhardt wasn’t happy with at the All-Star Race. Earnhardt shares a shop on the Hendrick campus with Jimmie Johnson, who finished third in the event and appeared to have a car that could rival the leaders.
“I know we were trying some stuff,” Johnson said. “I’m not sure I’m in love with everything we did this weekend. But we’re definitely trying some stuff.”
But Earnhardt didn’t indicate that he expects to have a significantly improved car for the 600 or whether Hendrick has a new-generation car coming that he might like better with the 2017 aerodynamic package.
“We bring the best stuff we think every week, so I’m a little concerned,” Earnhardt said as he walked out of the garage Saturday. “This week should have been good.”