LAS VEGAS, Nev.— For Dale Earnhardt fans, who are legion, there was encouraging news from Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
All weekend long, the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet had a fast car on an intermediate speedway, the type of track that constitutes the meat and potatoes of Sprint Cup racing.
For the first 73 laps of Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 400, fans in the packed grandstands were on their feet as Earnhardt led lap after lap, surrendering the top spot from Laps 44-46 during a cycle of yellow-flag pit stops.
All told, Earnhardt led 70 laps at Las Vegas, 18 more than he led during the entire 2011 season. There’s a gigantic caveat, however, to his strong performance in the early going.
It didn’t last.
Earnhardt blamed himself for finishing 10th with a car that clearly had more than 10th-place speed, chiding himself for failing to provide precise feedback to crew chief Steve Letarte.
“We didn’t keep up with the racetrack,” Earnhardt said. “When we were fast leading the race, the car was really tight. I knew by the end of the race, especially with all of those cautions we had at the end, that it was going to be a really tight race track and we needed to free the car up.
“I didn’t get Steve enough information throughout the day to really give him the idea of how tight the car was. The track sort of went past us, as far as our handling goes. I didn’t keep up with the track enough, and it cost us a handful of spots there at the end of the race.”
To be fair, Earnhardt lost track position — and never regained it — when Letarte called for four tires during a pit stop under caution on Lap 74. The vast majority of lead-lap cars took two tires on that stop, leaving Earnhardt in the 16th position for a restart on Lap 78.
Buried in traffic, Earnhardt’s car couldn’t get back to the front, and the lack of solid feedback compounded the problem. A run-in with Mark Martin’s Toyota later in the race didn’t help matters.
But here’s the bottom line: This is Earnhardt’s 13th full season in Sprint Cup racing. As close as the Cup cars are in quality, and as close as the drivers are in talent, the ability to give precise information to a crew chief is one of the areas where a team can build an edge.
Communication is the special gift of Earnhardt’s teammate, Jimmie Johnson. He and crew chief Chad Knaus have developed their own nuanced language for describing the handling of Johnson’s No. 48 Chevy.
Johnson has won five championships. Perhaps Earnhardt would be well served to model himself after his teammate, or at least to study and try to emulate what Johnson is doing.
Transition to EFI isn’t bug-free
The transition from carbureted engines to electronic fuel injection (EFI) hasn’t been as seamless as the suppliers and competitors would have liked.
Then again, no other racing series outside of drag racing puts as much stress on an engine as does the Sprint Cup.
The Penske Dodges of Brad Keselowski and AJ Allmendinger both experienced fuel pickup issues in Sunday’s race. In Keselowski’s case, the fuel supply to the engine simply stopped — even though there was gas in his fuel cell — on a restart with 17 laps left. Keselowski was second at the time but finished 32nd.
AJ Allmendinger lost fuel pressure much earlier in the race, and his crew began replacing parts in the fuel system, ultimately swapping out the entire electronic control unit (ECU). Allmendinger finished 37th.
“I kind of knew this was going to bite a few people,” said Todd Gordon, Allmendinger’s crew chief. “I was hoping it wouldn’t bite us, but it’s the learning curve of the new pieces. We’ll work hard on trying to make sure it’s fixed for next week (at Bristol).”