By Toby Christie, NASCAR Writer
FORT WORTH, Texas — Dale Earnhardt Jr. returned to his old form in Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. Being mired deep in the starting lineup didn’t faze him, neither did a new track configuration. The only obstacle that really challenged Earnhardt all day was the intense Texas heat.
During the race, on a bright sunny 81 degree day, Earnhardt’s helmet cooling fan malfunctioned. A gassed Earnhardt talked about his boiling day after climbing from his racecar.
“It was warm. I thought the car was pretty warm all weekend, but our air conditioner wasn’t doing very good job today,” Earnhardt stated with sweat dripping from his brow. “We’ve just got to relocate the outlet or the inlet to give it a better opportunity to get some air. But, with the wind, as windy as it is here you’ve got to put that thing in a more opportune place. It’s kind of like a vacuum. It’s pulling air out of the helmet. It’s going down one side of the track. I just ran with the visor up all day. I was happy to see that caution late, to get us some Gatorade and cool off. It was hot.”
Just how hot was it inside Earnhardt’s car? According to the 14-time Most Popular Driver, it was one of the hottest days he’s had inside a race car over his 18-year Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career.
“One of them. I’d say back side of the top-10 [hottest days]. It was warm all weekend, and my helmet blower wasn’t working.”
Earnhardt started 37th in the 40-car field after his car wasn’t able to get through technical inspection for qualifying. When the race started Sunday afternoon, Earnhardt — driving the Flash Point Axalta paint scheme — channeled his inner-Flash and knifed his way through the field. By the end of the first Stage, Earnhardt was flirting with the top-10.
From here on out, Earnhardt was a solid top-10 car the remainder of the day. In the closing laps of the race it looked like Earnhardt may have a shot at the win, but in the end the North Carolina native settled for a fifth place finish. Since coming back from an 18-race hiatus after a concussion sidelined him last year, Earnhardt had been having a rough go at things in 2017. Sunday marks his first top-five since June of last year.
“I figured we would get one sooner or later,” Earnhardt said. “But it’s nice. Our fans are really pulling for us. Could have finished a little better, but we’ll take top-five.”
All week long many worried that Sunday’s race wouldn’t feature much passing since tracks don’t typically rubber in during the first race weekend on a new surface. Saturday’s Xfinity Series contest did little to ease race fan’s worries. However, Eddie Gossage and his team used their Tire Monster and Kentucky Speedway’s Tire Dragon over night to help cake some rubber into the racing surface, and it paid off, as Earnhardt, race winner Jimmie Johnson and a slew of other drivers were able to work their way through the field throughout the day.
“I like the track. And I like the repave. I saw the second groove come in a little bit,” Earnhardt explained of the reconfigured 1.5-mile track.
This is a statement day for the No. 88 team, and Earnhardt gained something this week that he has been lacking for over a year.
“Confidence is probably half the battle for me,” Earnhardt admitted. “I need all I can get to have a shot. If I don’t believe in it and have confidence in it it’s hard for me to go for it and drive with confidence. Me and Greg have been talking about that all offseason. Figuring out to have the confidence on restarts that I want to have and I know I need to have and we had it today.”
Earnhardt, who jumped five spots in the point standings to 20th, will now go into his first off week of the year. Earnhardt is absolutely pumped to be carrying momentum into one of his favorite tracks — Bristol Motor Speedway.