Crash in final practice puts June winner in backup as he tries to sweep season
BROOKLYN, Mich. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. came from the rear of the field to win at Michigan International Speedway in June, when he fell back with handling issues before rallying to snap a 143-race skid. He feels he can do the same thing again Sunday, when he’ll try to prevail in a backup car.
Earnhardt crashed his primary car — the race-winning vehicle from two months ago — when he spun into the wall in Turn 2 late in Saturday’s final Sprint Cup practice. He’ll start the race at the rear of the field in a backup car that hasn’t yet turned any laps on the 2-mile oval, but was used in a test session at Michigan prior to the race weekend here in June.
“We tested it here when we first came, so we know a lot about the car here at this particular track, where in most cases you don’t,” Earnhardt said. “We have that going for us. We have a lot of information, and I feel like we should be able to put a car out there that’s relatively in the ballpark. … Other than just starting at the back, I don’t think it’s hurt our chances too much. I mean, you hate to wreck the primary car, but the consequences and the situation really couldn’t be more favorable with the backup than it is here for us.”
Bidding to become the first driver in 17 years to sweep both races at Michigan in a single season, Earnhardt spun in final practice and backed his No. 88 car into the wall. “We were making some changes on the car, and got the car too loose, and it just came out from under me in the corner,” he said. “A little bit of being too free, and probably running harder than I should have been in practice.”
The crew immediately began unloading the backup, which meant saying goodbye to a vehicle that Earnhardt said his team hadn’t made any changes to since it visited Victory Lane here two months ago. The backup car was tested at Pocono in addition to Michigan, and raced twice this season, in a rain-shortened event at Auto Club Speedway — a 2-mile oval very much like Michigan — where Earnhardt finished third, and at Darlington where he finished 17th.
Earnhardt will be joined at the rear of the field by Hendrick Motorsports stable mate Jimmie Johnson, who changed an engine Saturday and will have to vacate his third-place starting position. Johnson regrouped to post the second-fastest lap in final practice, whereas Earnhardt didn’t have time to get his backup car on the race track.
“He’ll probably cut up through there pretty quick compared to us, but we’ll be patient,” said Earnhardt, who qualified 22nd Friday. “When we won here in [June], we fell all the way to the back having some trouble with the balance of the car, and made some changes. So we’ve come out of a hole before here and won the race, so I feel pretty good about our chances still. We’ve just got to make sure we do all our homework up in the front of the hauler here, and when they put it out on the starting grid, it’s close. It needs to be close. We don’t want to have to deal with the car being way off balance-wise at the start of the race. Because that could make it tough for us to finish well.”
If the balance is there, Earnhardt believes his team can use cautions and pit strategy to get him to the front. “We can take no tires, two tires, whatever, and gain a lot of track position throughout the first part of the race if we get the opportunity under yellows,” he said. “If we don’t have yellows, we’re going to have our work cut out for us.”
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