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Junior Rallies Late for 3rd at Sonoma

By Tyler Overstreet, JR Motorsports | Race Report Published 6/22/2014
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Race: Toyota / Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway
Track Specs: 1.99-mile road course
Weather: Sunny, 80 degrees
Race Winner: Carl Edwards
Dale Jr.’s Finish: 3rd

Entering Sunday’s Toyota / Save Mart 350, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had never finished in the top five, or even the top 10, at the 1.99-mile Sonoma road course. His best finish in 14 career starts was 11th set three times. Sunday was different. Earnhardt Jr. wheeled his No. 88 Kelley Blue Book Chevrolet to a third-place finish thanks to a strong car and brilliant pit strategy by crew chief Steve Letarte.

After starting 17th, Earnhardt Jr. patiently worked his way into the top 10 early on and remained there through a multitude of pit strategies that shuffled the running order on several occasions. Like most of the lead cars, the No. 88 team visited pit road at lap 72 with the original intent of going to the finish without another stop.

Several cautions, including one triggered by contact between Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth, bunched the field for restarts on the narrow road course. Seemingly halted in seventh position, Letarte called Earnhardt Jr. to pit road under caution at lap 92 for four fresh tires and fuel before the race’s final restart with only 16 laps to go.

Taking the restart 10th, Earnhardt Jr. made quick work of three cars to move up to seventh on the first lap. In the waning laps, Earnhardt Jr. bypassed road course standout Marcos Ambrose, Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson and the race’s pole sitter Jamie McMurray to climb to third position.

Earnhardt Jr. utilized his fresh tires to gain on eventual winner Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon, but ran out of laps as Edwards earned his first career road course victory ahead of Gordon, Earnhardt Jr., McMurray and Paul Menard.

DALE JR. QUOTES
What stands out to you most?

“Just putting the tires on and getting the strategy right. I told Steve (Letarte) the secret to being a great crew chief is to call every year like it’s your last because he’s had the best strategy every week. The Kelley Blue Book Chevy was fast all weekend really and I tried to screw it up there a couple times in the race, but I calmed down and was able to get a good finish out of it.

“I got into Matt (Kenseth). I jumped that curb, and just jumped in the air and just ran into him. Totally my fault. It was kind of what happened with him last year at Watkins Glen. Just racing a little too hard through there with him and probably should have let him have the spot. Other than that, we had a pretty good day. We’ll cut the shell off this car, and put it in the woods and go to Watkins Glen.”

Sonoma Race Report
Start 17th
Finish 3rd
Laps Completed (Led) 110 of 110 (0)
Standings (From Leader) 3rd (-25)
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