By Toby Christie, NASCAR Editor
FORT WORTH, Texas — From the rough start that was a 36th-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has turned around his season in a big way. That 180-degree spin from February’s ultimate let-down continued Saturday night at Texas Motor Speedway.
Earnhardt rolled off from the 14th spot, thanks to a transmission change that sent Chase Elliott to the rear of the field, and early on his No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet was quite tight. Once Earnhardt began to tune on it from the driver seat, the car began to come to him.
“Well, we had a great car. We didn’t really know we had that good a car, but when the race started, we were real tight. We made some good adjustments to get the car handling well, and then really controlled the balance of the car the rest of the night with the track bar.”
With his car dialed in, it became clear that Earnhardt had a car capable of winning the race.
By lap 40, Earnhardt had worked his way to fourth, and from this point on Earnhardt looked like he had a top-10 finish easily in the bag. Then on lap 211 he short pitted, and while he was on pit road Josh Wise slammed into the wall to bring out a yellow flag.
This caught Earnhardt a lap down, but luckily for the North-Carolina native, he was in position for the lucky dog.
“We got caught on pit road when the 30 wrecked and got the Lucky Dog. Very fortunate to get the Lucky Dog there. We were going to have to take a wave‑around either way, and kind of got back up there a little bit, and then we pitted for tires and lost a couple spots there, but just because some guys stayed out.”
Earnhardt would restart 14th, and would work his way to sixth place when the caution came back out on lap 279 for debris on the front stretch.
On the final restart of the night at lap 302, Earnhardt lined up in fifth spot. After a thrilling battle with Joey Logano in the closing circuits, Earnhardt worked his way to second. After the race, Earnhardt credited NASCAR’s new lower downforce package for aiding his rally to finish second.
“We got lucky at the end to be able to restart on the inside. The outside was kind of difficult, and we restarted fifth and were able to get up to third and raced [Logano] at the end. It was fun,” Earnhardt said. “I enjoyed driving the car tonight. The car was very loose and very challenging but a lot of fun for me. Obviously our car was good, so passing guys we had a lot of passing, which with the ’14 or ’15 package, I’d have never got by Joey, so it was fun to have an opportunity to sort of set somebody up and get it by him there at the end, and that’s due to the direction we went this year with the low downforce. Pretty cool.”
This finish in the Duck Commander 500 marks Earnhardt’s second runner-up finish of the season, the other came at Atlanta — another 1.5-mile speedway — and he now has three top-five finishes through seven races. Earnhardt now goes into Bristol with some momentum, and he is hungry for a win.
“We finished up where we should have. We need a win. We’d love a win,” Earnhardt said. “I know our fans want a win really bad. Trust me, we’re all working really hard and running great every week. Hopefully that’s fun for everyone to watch.”
Image: Alan Marler for Chevy Racing