Oct. 5, 2014
By Jim Pedley
NASCAR Wire Service
KANSAS CITY, Kan. – It was with a sense of renewed hope that Dale Earnhardt Jr. began Sunday’s opening race of the Contender Round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup at Kansas Speedway.
It was with a feeling of missed opportunity that he left Kansas after the Hollywood Casino 400.
Earnhardt – whose best finish in the Challenger Round of the playoffs was ninth two weeks ago at New Hampshire Motor Speedway – hit the SAFER barrier on Lap 122 of the 267-lap race on Sunday.
If that didn’t produce enough pain for Earnhardt and his mass of followers, the hit to that barrier came while he was leading the race.
Earnhardt, who will turn 40 years old on Friday, would finish 39th Sunday – 63 laps behind winner Joey Logano
“My car was good,” Earnhardt said. “It was turning, I really wasn’t running that hard. The tire just went flat.”
And so did those renewed hopes for winning a first Cup championship. Earnhardt will head to Charlotte Motor Speedway next weekend and then frenetic Talladega the week after that, with zero room for a mistake.
“Points, they hurt,” Earnhardt said as his team went to work with hammers and pry bars in the Kansas garages after the wreck. “It is what it is. We’ll just have to go to the next race and try to win.”
Earnhardt cruised into the opening round of the Chase. The Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet driver had three victories before the playoffs kicked off at Chicagoland Speedway a month ago. He was third in points after the regular season.
But once the Chase got under way, Earnhardt logged finishes of 11th, ninth and 17th. Arriving at Kansas, he hadn’t led a lap since he led four at Michigan on Aug. 17.
On Friday, during a meeting with the press, he was asked if he was excited about advancing to the Contender Round and having the championship points reset.
“Absolutely,” Earnhardt said. “We didn’t do too well these first three so the reset button is in favor of our team. We feel like we are not realizing our potential and I think it is obvious we are not realizing our potential. This gives us an opportunity to sort of get back into the championship battle.”
Also confident was his crew chief, Steve Letarte.
“We knew we’d be good today,” Letarte said after the Kansas race. “We brought the car from Pocono.”
That car won Pocono on Aug. 3. In fact, it gave Earnhardt, Letarte and the No. 88 HMS team their last victory.
Earnhardt qualified eighth fastest and looked plenty fast once the race started. He ran near the front early. Then, just after a restart on Lap 75 of the 267-lap race at the Kansas 1.5-mile tri-oval, Earnhardt went underneath Jamie McMurray and Kevin Harvick, who were running first and second respectively, and took the lead.
He would end up leading 44 more laps in the Pocono car, of which Letarte would say, “It proved it was fast enough to win.”
Then came the wreck. It came as a result of a problem several teams and drivers had on Sunday: a flat right-front tire.
“We hadn’t had any tire wear,” Earnhardt said. “We didn’t wear the inside edge out down to the cords and pop a tire, the tread just came off.”
Also nipped by the tire bug was Earnhardt’s teammate and fellow Chase driver, Kasey Kahne.
Kahne too was having a good run until his problem.
“The last half of the run I could usually catch the leaders,” Kahne said. “I was slowly reeling them back in and something happened to my tire. I was just ready to crash for a lap and made it to pit road before it blew.”
Kahne finished 22nd, two laps down.