Dale Earnhardt Jr. fought with the leaders several times during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Irwin Tools Night Race Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway. Unfortunately for the Hendrick Motorsports driver it was for all the wrong reasons.
After starting 20th, Earnhardt was moving steadily towards the front. But during the first pit stops of the night, Earnhardt took only two tires and prior to the restart he reported a possible loose wheel and had to pit again dropping from 13th to 38th. He was forced to battle then leader Kyle Busch to stay on the lead lap. He held off Busch for a few laps but ultimately went a lap down. A wave-around got him back on the lead lap 125. Earnhardt tried to move forward but found little progress on the half-mile track that is notoriously hard to pass on. As the halfway point of the 500 lap race neared Earnhardt found himself fighting with new leader, and eventual race winner, Joey Logano to stay on the lead lap. The duo fought for several intense laps until Earnhardt brushed the outside wall allowing Logano to rocket past.
A well-timed caution shortly after allowed Earnhardt to once again make up his lost lap. But just past the halfway point, he again lost a lap to then leader Carl Edwards. He remained the first car a lap down until caution on lap 359 allowed him to get back on the lead lap. Earnhardt started a slow steady climb towards the front dodging the spinning cars of Clint Bowyer and David Ragan and one point and getting as high as sixth.
He got as high as third but began to fade reporting that the handling on his car going away. He restarted sixth on the final restart of the night on lap 431 and was able to hold on for a ninth place finish. After a final pit stop under caution at lap 431, Earnhardt restarted sixth and managed to remain in the top 10 for a ninth-place finish.
“Yeah we had a little issue on pit road and lost real early in the race so that put us behind everyone.,” Earnhardt said. “It’s just so hard to pass here. Kyle (Busch) was flying at the start of the race and lapped all the way up to us and a couple more cars. You just can’t get behind early like that when there are so many cars on the lead lap. We never did, hell we were running 12th getting lapped. Just so hard to pass, even the lap traffic is hard to pass. They are doing everything they can to give you an opportunity, but you’ve got to run like two or three corners just to set a guy up and get in position. You can lose half a straightaway quick, even a straightaway to people you are racing against.”
Earnhardt resigned himself to his top 10 finish. He added however that he still had an entertaining night.
“That is the way it is,” he said. “We had a lot of fun. The car is not in bad shape. We did run it into the fence twice, maybe three times, but I know twice. I think it bent up the rear-end housing a little bit. It bent the wheel, so, when it bends the wheel it bends something else. Probably why we lost so many positions at the end there, we should have run fifth or sixth, but on the long run it just got real bad.”
The race marks Earnhardt’s 15th top-10 finish in 24 starts this season. He said his biggest issue Saturday night might have been with himself.
“If you just hang around you are going to get in the top 15 here if you don’t do anything crazy,” he said. “Just had to be patient and I wasn’t patient enough. I got into the fence a couple of times. But we had pretty good early run speed. Right at the beginning of the race we took off, passing guys and having a good time. The car was driving great. But, yeah, that is just the way it is, just a long night. But I had fun, this place is a lot of fun.”