Dale Earnhardt Jr. had two good finishes at Bristol Motor Speedway last season. In fact, the last time the series visited, last August, Earnhardt finished second. He finished a respectable ninth in the spring race.
With that kind of confidence, Earnhardt came to Bristol for the Food City 500 two weeks removed from a fifth place at Texas Motor Speedway. Friday however, rain prevented qualifying leaving Earnhardt with a starting spot of 20th.
That same rain moved the race to Monday and there was no real improvement for Earnhardt. He was unable to move forward; crew chief Greg Ives had the crew throw several adjustments at the car during pit stops.
During a caution on lap 210, things went from bad to worse.
The crew reported smoke coming from the Chevy prior to the restart. When the green flag flew, Earnhardt charged into turn 1, trailing smoke. The car shot up the track and into the wall.
“The guys said there was some oil in the pit stall after our pit stop,” Earnhardt said. “I noticed when I was getting lined up double file for the restart the car was smoking. I just thought maybe we had a tire rub for some reason, but I couldn’t remember what might have caused that. And went into Turn 1 on the restart and the car went straight into the wall with oil all over the tires.”
It was the end of his day. As for what broke, the crew later determined that a leak had erupted in the oil tank.
“It’s unfortunate,” he said. “We weren’t running that great, but we were working on our car and trying to figure out how to get it to run better. And get something out of today, but we are going to have another bad finish. We have had a lot of them this year. It’s going to be tough.”
Earnhardt has only one top 10 finish, that being his fifth at Texas. He finished 38th. Earnhardt said he was surprised that he struggled in the race.
“Yeah, I was because we practiced well,” he said. “But we ran into some issues at the end of the last practice with the car and they were still there today. I don’t know what in our set-up is creating that. It’s not like I’m feeling something that I wasn’t familiar with. We did have some good practices and felt pretty confident, but apparently, whatever we got into the car late in the last practice we didn’t tune it back out. We were really tight in the center and tight in the throttle and guys beating me really bad back to the gas. That ain’t no way to run anywhere really.”
Monday’s race had a new element to it. The track had put down a sticky resin at the bottom of the turns. It met with approval from fans, and drivers.
“I hate to really make any comment one way or the other because our car wasn’t driving well enough to give the track a good recommendation,” Earnhardt said. “I like the fact… one of the things I noticed in the race is that the leader doesn’t seem to be trapped by the lap cars and he has an option to get around these guys and they were lapping up to where I was around 20th in these little green-flag runs we are having. As a guy that is running toward the front you’ve got to like that. The way it was before, you were kind of stuck behind guys up on the high line and if… even a guy that is three tenths slower than you he could hold you up if he wanted to, but now you’ve got options. You can run the top in (Turns) 3 and 4 would get going and would become a good line and the bottom of (Turn) 1 and 2 was always good throughout the whole run. As a driver, you like to have those options. I like it.”
Earnhardt missed the second half of the 2016 season recovering from concussion symptoms. Monday’s crash had many people holding their breath. Earnhardt however, could smile.
“I feel pretty good,” he said. “Obviously, it wasn’t a real hard lick. I got the car slowed down a little bit and it really didn’t damage the car too badly.
“Had we not had something terminal with the oil system,” he added smiling. “We would have slapped tires on it and kept going.”