This NASCAR season started well for Dale Earnhardt Jr. He’s not so certain it’s ending where he’d like it to.
After running a solid sixth during Sunday’s Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Earnhardt continues to find himself stuck at the wrong end of the Chase for the Sprint Cup standings – in 11th place, 62 points behind leader Matt Kenseth.
It’s not where Earnhardt envisioned he might be back in the spring, when he briefly was the points leader after five consecutive top-10 finishes to start the season – including a second in the season-opening Daytona 500.
“I feel like we started off great, we started off strong,” Earnhardt said. “We had an advantage on everybody through hard work in the offseason and having a better understanding of the new (Generation 6) car. We rattled off a bunch of great finishes and got ourselves into the points lead.”
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But since Earnhardt finished second at California during March – vaulting him to the top of the standings – his Hendrick Motorsports team has struggled to find consistency.
“We’ve still had better speed than in 2012,” Earnhardt said. “But we’ve had issues. Me making mistakes. Calls that (crew chief) Steve (Letarte) made that didn’t go our way. Getting caught on pit road under cautions. Engine failure.
“We’ve taken a good race car out of the race.”
Earnhardt, while never in danger of missing the Chase, finished eighth in the regular-season standings. After his hot start, the closest he came to winning were two top-fives at Pocono (Pa.). Otherwise, the remainder of the season usually was one mediocre finish after another.
A blown engine at Chicagoland in the first race of the Chase put Earnhardt in the spot he finds himself in heading to Dover (Del.) International Speedway for Sunday’s AAA 400. That 35th-place finish placed him in the 13th, and final, spot in the Chase standings before New Hampshire.
And after qualifying 17th-fastest at Loudon, Earnhardt was further discouraged.
“I was really mad about that lap in qualifying,” he said. “But then I was really mad at myself after walking away for getting so emotional about it. I look around at other guys who don’t qualify well, and they might feel the same way I felt, but they don’t show it. I was disappointed in myself. I’d act that way when I was younger, showing you that attitude all the time.”
Earnhardt overcame that, finishing sixth. And now, he is concerned about climbing back into title contention. Those 62 points are a lot to make up, with Kenseth winning the first two Chase races and second-place Kyle Busch trailing him by 14 points and Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson by 18.
“We’ve got a sixth place and a mulligan,” Earnhardt said. “But those guys can have trouble. We can win a couple of races and get back in it. As well as they’re running, it’s going to be hard. You don’t know what can happen to those guys. They can have a bad finish as easily as we’ve had.”