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Dale Jr. Opens the Chase 8th at Chicago

By Mike Davis, JR Motorsports | Race Report Published 9/16/2012
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Race: GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway
Track Specs: 1.5-mile speedway / 267 Laps
Weather: Clear, 74 degrees
Race Winner: Brad Keselowski
Dale Jr.’s Finish: 8th
Dale Jr.’s Chase Standing: 7th (-17 points to leader)

Dale Earnhardt Jr. rang in the 2012 Chase for the Championship with an eighth-place finish at Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday, a seamless top-10 to start his bid for the NASCAR Sprint Cup title. After the first of 10 Chase races, Earnhardt Jr. is seventh in the point standings, 17 points behind new leader Brad Keselowski (complete standings below).

Earnhardt Jr. qualified fourth but was forced to start at rear of the field due to an engine change on Saturday. The motor of the No. 88 Chevrolet was bumped out of gear following its qualifying lap, subsequently over-revving the engine and bending a valve. Crew chief Steve Letarte made the call Saturday afternoon to change motors and surrender the top-five starting spot.

Earnhardt took the green flag in 36th position but didn’t stay there long. He eclipsed 12 spots in 10 laps and bypassed cars with relative ease. Brief contact from the Ford of Trevor Bayne when racing for 25th was the only hiccup, but it didn’t slow the Amp Energy Chevrolet down. When the first caution waved, Earnhardt had climbed all the way to 13th.

A two-tire stop on lap 68 moved the No. 88 Chevrolet up to eighth place – its first cracking of the top-10 – but whatever ground was gained soon was lost with an untimely caution on lap 148 moments after Earnhardt had serviced the car under green. Junior’s Chevrolet was one of 23 cars that took the wave-around, and he restarted 18th.

His ascension at the beginning of the race was mirrored by his rapid climb at the end. Quick pit work during the fifth caution on lap 190 and under green on lap 228 helped catapult Earnhardt from 18th to 11th. The Dew Crew took only two tires on the final stop, giving Earnhardt fresh right-side rubber for his dash to the checkers. He broke the top-10 on lap 244, passed Sam Hornish for ninth on lap 255, and swiped eighth from Denny Hamlin on the white-flag lap.

By race’s end, Chase contenders had a grip on the top three spots, starting with Keselowski. Keselowski led 78 laps en route to his fourth win of the season. His laps-led total was bested only by Jimmie Johnson’s 171, but the five-time Sprint Cup champion finished 3.1 seconds behind Keselowski in second place. Kasey Kahne finished third, followed by Kyle Busch and Ryan Newman.

Chase contenders who struggled included Jeff Gordon, who crashed hard on lap 188. Hamlin went from ninth to 16th in the waning circuits when his Toyota ran out of gas.

Click here for the current Sprint Cup Series standings.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Quotes
“It was a decent day. I’m just disappointed in myself for making that mistake with the engine and getting us that far back at the start of the race. We really couldn’t overcome the track position. We had a great car at the start of the race. For the first 100 or 130 laps, the car was really fast. We made a couple of adjustments that didn’t really help us where we needed help, and we sort of made the car ordinary. We just had to maintain track position. Some guys had some trouble, and we gained where we could. The good news is we’re still in the fight. We’ll go on to the next one still with a shot.”

Chicago Race Report
Start 4th (36th due to engine change)
Finish 8th
Laps Completed (Led) 267 of 267 (0)
Pit Stops Laps 43, 68 (2 tires), 102, 147, 190 and 228 (2 tires)
Standings (from leader) 7th (-17)
Condition Running

 

Standings
After Ford EcoBoost 400
Rank +/- Driver Points Behind
1 +3 Kevin Harvick 5043 0
2 +1 Ryan Newman 5042 -1
3 -2 Denny Hamlin 5037 -6
4 -2 Joey Logano 5028 -15
5 -- Brad Keselowski 2361 -2682
6 -- Jeff Gordon 2348 -2695
7 -- Matt Kenseth 2334 -2709
8 +2 Dale Earnhardt Jr. 2301 -2742
9 -- Carl Edwards 2288 -2755
10 -2 Kyle Busch 2285 -2758
11 +2 Jimmie Johnson 2274 -2769
12 +2 Kurt Busch 2263 -2780
Full Standings