Dale Jr. Clinches Chase Spot, Finishes 12th at Bristol


Dale Jr. clinched his position in the Chase for the Sprint Cup with a 12th-place finish in the IRWIN Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Race: IRWIN Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway
Track Specs: .533-mile concrete oval / 500 laps
Weather: Clear; 67 degrees
Race Winner: Denny Hamlin
Dale Jr.’s Finish: 12th

When Dale Earnhardt Jr. entered Bristol Motor Speedway to LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” during driver introductions Saturday night, Driver 88 let everyone know he was prepared for a night full of beating and banging on the World’s Fastest Half-Mile. The major battles for Earnhardt ended up being track position and overcoming a pair of pit road penalties; one for too fast exiting and another for pitting before pit lane opened. The No. 88 team once again proved their mettle by salvaging a 12th-place finish and clinching their spot in the 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup.

From the drop of the green flag, track position took center-stage on the tight half-mile with Earnhardt starting 16th after qualifying was rained out Friday afternoon. The starting lineup was set based on first practice speeds, according to the NASCAR Rule Book. Dale Jr.’s early feedback to crew chief Steve Letarte and the team was positive, but also characterized the story of the night, “This is the best car I’ve had here in years. It’s just impossible to pass.”

On the team’s first pit stop, Earnhardt was deemed too fast exiting pit road and sent to the tail end of the longest line for a restart on lap 90. Over the race’s next 100 laps, Dale Jr. maneuvered through the field and Letarte made several pit calls to differentiate the No. 88’s pit strategy from others allowing the No. 88 Diet Mountain Dew/National Guard Chevrolet to take the lead for 13 laps. Earnhardt was able to maintain a top-10 position until a miscommunication led to a pit stop on lap 348 when pit road had not opened. The penalty sent Earnhardt’s No. 88 car to the tail-end of the longest line for a restart on lap 352. Dale Jr. was able to make his way back to 12th by night’s end.

Earnhardt Greg Biffle, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth as the only drivers to clinch their place in the Chase thus far. This season marks the fifth time in Earnhardt’s career that he has qualified for the Chase (2004, 2006, 2008, 2011 and 2012) and the first time he has made the Chase in consecutive seasons.

On making the Chase:
“This feels really good. We’ve worked hard all season. I have to thank my guys, they do a good job every week. It’s nice to get our spot clinched and not have to sweat it too much in these next few races. We know what that’s like going into Richmond not locked in. We know we have some work to do, but it’s good to be locked in.”

On his race tonight:
“We had a real good strategy and a real fast car. We made a little mistake coming down pit road there at the end (entering the pits when it was closed). I don’t know what we were thinking. We can’t make those mistakes too often. But we had a fast car, especially at the start of the race. We just lost track position and couldn’t get by some guys at the end. I had fun though. I’m not sure what the fans thought about the race, but I really enjoyed myself. I hope they enjoyed it. The folks that didn’t come, they missed a good one.”

Bristol Race Report
Start 16th
Finish 12th
Laps Completed (Led) 500 of 500 (13)
Pit Stops Laps 84, 124, 226, 325 (2 tires), 348 and 415 (2 tires)
Standings (from leader) 3rd (-15)
Condition Running