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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup

Unhappy with Track Surface, Earnhardt Battles to Finish 12th

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In his final race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Sunday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished a good-but-not-great 12th in the Bank of America 500.

But as has been the case for the last four weeks, thee most interesting part of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series  playoffs so far isn’t what happens on the track on Sundays; instead, it’s what happens on Fridays.

Fridays are when Earnhardt hosts his media availabilities at whatever track the Cup series is racing at on any given week.

Earnhardt’s media sessions are a model for how drivers should interact with the press, but most rarely do: The 14-time NASCAR Most Popular Driver is direct, open and honest. Ask him a direct question and you get a direct answer, instead of the usual mumbo jumbo of happy talk about sponsors and the boys back at the shop that so many drivers seem bent on spewing.

Friday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, I asked Earnhardt if he was enjoying the final few weeks of his final season more because he didn’t have the pressure of a title run to contend with. After all, this time of year, the drivers in the NASCAR playoffs tend to start getting really uptight.

Earnhardt’s answer to the question was typically insightful.

“Well, probably not.  I think that the fans would be having more fun if we were racing for the championship and then I would be having more fun interacting with them in that manner and their excitement of it,” he said.  “So, I think it’s a little bittersweet for me and the fans and our supporters with the situation we’re in.

“I only really have fun when we run well. It’s been a difficult year from a fun meter standpoint. We haven’t really moved the needle too much this year,” he said. “This past couple of weekends, especially at Dover and Richmond, we’ve seen some improvements and had fun driving the car and been quick. … But, that’s it. I enjoy running well. When I don’t run well I don’t know that anybody enjoys that. And it’s hard to make light of it or to smile through it. And I think the fans would have more fun, and in turn, me having more fun if we were in the thick of the championship battle.” 

Sunday, in his final race at Charlotte, Earnhardt had to run a backup No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet after his primary car got into some improperly prepared or applied PJ1 traction compound and hit the wall. And with both practices rained out Saturday, Earnhardt knew Sunday was going to be an uphill fight, and it was.

Earnhardt and his team worked hard to finish 12th and afterwards, the driver was none too happy about the conditions of the racing surface. “Whatever they did to the track had it out of freaking control,” said Earnhardt.  “You didn’t know whether you were going to be tight or loose every corner.  You didn’t know where to run and where not to run.  It was just crazy.  I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Still, under the circumstances it could have been a lot worse.

“We didn’t know where to run and how to run you were just in there chasing the race car around the corner, a lot of work.  So, the effort was hard,” said Earnhardt.  “Considering how little practice we got and how bad the car was at some points in the race, pretty happy with 12th to be honest with you.  I thought we were going to run … I mean we ran 18th – 20th all day.”

Tom Jensen

Tom Jensen is a veteran motorsports journalist. He spent 13 years with FOXSports.com, where he was Digital Content Manager. Previously, he was executive editor of NASCAR Scene and managing editor of National Speed Sport News. Jensen served as the president of the National Motorsports Press Association and is the group’s former Writer of the Year.