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Junior Leads En Route to Top 5 at Phoenix

By Mike Hoag, JR Motorsports | Race Report Published 3/3/2013
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Race: Subway Fresh Fit 500
Track Specs: 1 mile; Intermediate / 312 Laps
Weather: Overcast, 70 deg.
Race Winner: Carl Edwards
Dale Jr.’s Finish: 5th

Dale Earnhardt Jr. continued his strong start to the 2013 season with a fifth-place finish Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway. With the finish, Earnhardt Jr. maintains the second position in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings trailing teammate Jimmie Johnson by eight points.

Similar to Saturday’s Nationwide Series race, handling proved to be a pivotal aspect throughout Sunday's 312-lap race with tightness and an overall lack of grip being the topic of conversation during cautions in the race’s early laps. Earnhardt Jr. fell as low as 31st-position in the opening 100 laps Sunday as he and crew chief Steve Letarte made multiple changes to the National Guard Chevrolet SS. After a myriad of adjustments, the car began to handle to Earnhardt’s liking as he advanced 11 positions in 18 laps at one point in the race.

With Letarte calling for a two-tire stop, Earnhardt Jr. found himself racing amongst the top five just passed the race’s halfway point. Thanks to a quick two-tire pit stop Earnhardt Jr. characterized as a “Dukes of Hazard stop”, the No. 88 car took the lead prior to a restart at lap 193.

As the leader, Earnhardt Jr. maintained the number one position for the next 47 laps despite challenges of Johnson. Earnhardt Jr. led the field down for the leaders’ final pit stop but lost the lead to eventual winner Carl Edwards. After exiting his stall, Earnhardt Jr. held a narrow lead ahead of Edwards on pit road before having to take evasive action to miss Casey Mears entering his pit.

Earnhardt Jr. found himself in fuel-conservation mode at the race’s final caution. Letarte pleaded with Earnhardt Jr. to save as much fuel as possible under caution. NASCAR deemed Earnhardt Jr. not to have maintained caution speed and moved the No. 88 car from its fourth-place position back to fifth for a green-white-checkered-finish.

Edwards cruised to the victory, followed by a spirited battle between Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Keselowski. Earnhardt Jr. finished fifth.

For Earnhardt Jr., this marks his first top-five finish at Phoenix since April 2005. This is the second time in his career that he opened the season with back-to-back top-five finishes (2004).

DALE JR. QUOTES
Thoughts on the race...
“Well, I hate to be frustrated in Phoenix, but I think we are. We had a real good car and feel like we could have finished better than fifth, maybe even have won the race. We didn’t get the breaks off of pit road, we got boxed in and ‘picked’, the 99 beat us. I had to lift and give him the spot, that was the race in my opinion.”

How was the car?
“Real good race car, tough in traffic you know, but we made our cars good enough to make some passes and gain on a few guys.”

On the changes to the car...
“It could have been better; we keep trying to work to get better. This has been a rough track for us; we haven’t ran good here in a long time. We definitely improved the racecar; we weren’t able to show it in qualifying. Made a couple of changes in the race that helped the car, track position was really important, I had the master of strategy on my pit box so I wasn’t worried about that, he definitely gave us the opportunity.”

On leading the race...
“It seemed like on that long run when we were leading, we were actually going to pull away there if it stayed green. We were putting distance on the 48 and 99; everybody is pretty equal on new tires.”

On his outlook after the race...
“I hate to give away the points; I would have loved to be in Victory Lane. This is a good sign for us though, that we have improved this much in Phoenix. If it’s a sign for the rest of the season, we’re going to be alright.”

Phoenix Race Report
Start 21st
Finish 5th
Laps Completed (Led) 316 of 316 (47)
Standings (from leader) 2nd (-8)
Condition Running

 

Standings
After GEICO 500
Rank +/- Driver Points Behind
1 -- Joey Logano 3121 0
2 +1 Kevin Harvick 3117 -4
3 +1 Ryan Newman 3117 -4
4 +3 Denny Hamlin 3100 -21
5 +4 Matt Kenseth 3099 -22
6 -1 Carl Edwards 3099 -22
7 -1 Jeff Gordon 3093 -28
8 -- Kasey Kahne 3090 -31
9 -7 Kyle Busch 3086 -35
10 -- Brad Keselowski 3085 -36
11 -- Jimmie Johnson 3053 -68
12 -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. 3045 -76
Full Standings