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Junior Runs Well, Has to Settle for 15th at Bristol

By Tyler Overstreet, JR Motorsports | Race Report Published 3/18/2012
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Race: Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway
Track Specs: .5-mile oval / 500 Laps
Weather: Sunny, 71 degrees
Race Winner: Brad Keselowski
Dale Jr.’s Finish: 15th

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 88 National Guard/Diet Mountain Dew team ran competitively amongst the top six cars for much of the Food City 500 Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway. A late-race speeding penalty relegated the team to a 15th-place finish. The finish marks the fourth consecutive top-15 finish for the No. 88 team to begin the 2012 season, marking the first time in Earnhardt Jr.’s career he has started with such a streak. Earnhardt Jr. leaves Bristol tied with Denny Hamlin for fifth in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points, trailing leader Greg Biffle by 20 points.

After starting 18th, Earnhardt Jr. maneuvered his way into the top-15 within the race’s first 15 lap laps. Crew chief Steve Letarte elected to keep the No. 88 National Guard/Diet Mountain Dew Chevrolet on the track under a lengthy caution at lap 24 for a six-car accident involving Earnhardt’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne, five-time Bristol winner Kyle Busch and others. Letarte’s call to stay out provided Earnhardt Jr. the track position to race among the top six cars for the majority of the race.

In an unusual twist to Bristol’s short-track racing, the 500-lap race was slowed only five times for cautions and featured a green flag run of more than 200 laps. Earnhardt Jr. and teammate Jeff Gordon made slight contact at lap 360 resulting in a flat left-rear tire on Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet sending him spinning into the turn 3 wall. Earnhardt Jr. expressed regret for the incident following the race, "I absolutely feel responsible. I got into his door a little bit, but we were racing and having a good time at it really, to be honest with you. I put the pipes up against the left-rear tire on his car and knocked the sidewall out of it. I feel bad about that."

Having pitted on lap 347, fuel became a cause of concern for Earnhardt Jr. with Letarte urging him to save as much fuel as possible as the race’s laps wound down. A caution at lap 477 served as the opportunity to take two tires and top-off on gas. Earnhardt Jr. was penalized for a speeding penalty sending him to the tail-end of the longest line in 14th-position with less than 20 laps remaining.

A flat-tire on the race’s final lap allowed Tony Stewart to bypass Earnhardt Jr.’s Chevrolet crossing the line in 15th.

Brad Keselowski notched his first win of the Sprint Cup Series season and second consecutive at the Bristol half-mile, followed closely by Matt Kenseth. Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers rounded out the top five.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. / Driver No. 88 National Guard / Diet Mountain Dew Chevrolet
“I got busted speeding on pit road. I really hate that happened. I don’t think I was, but I don’t think any driver ever thinks he was speeding. Congratulations to Brad (Keselowski). He drove a great race. We had a good, fast car. We didn’t have a good car here last year, so we’re improving. Things are looking up for our team. We’ve been running strong this year and I expect more of it. If we put cars like we did today on the race track, we’ll get some shots at some wins.”

Bristol Race Report
Start 18th
Finish 15th
Laps Completed (Led) 500 of 500 (2)
Standings (from leader) 5th (-20)
Pitstops Laps 118, 256, 342 and 479
Condition Running

 

Standings
After MyAFibStorycom 400
Rank +/- Driver Points Behind
1 -- Brad Keselowski 2059 0
2 -- Jeff Gordon 2052 -7
3 +2 Joey Logano 2049 -10
4 +2 Kevin Harvick 2047 -12
5 -2 Dale Earnhardt Jr. 2042 -17
6 -2 Jimmie Johnson 2041 -18
7 +1 Kyle Busch 2041 -18
8 +1 Denny Hamlin 2041 -18
9 +1 Kurt Busch 2039 -20
10 +1 Kasey Kahne 2034 -25
11 +3 Matt Kenseth 2034 -25
12 -5 Carl Edwards 2030 -29
Full Standings