By David Morgan, NASCAR Writer
With two-time Super Bowl champion Peyton Manning in attendance on behalf of his sponsor Nationwide Insurance, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. looked to find his way back to Bristol’s victory lane for the first time in 12 years, but had his work cut out for him from the very start of the race.
After qualifying 20th, the start of the Food City 500 had Earnhardt and his team wondering just what went wrong when Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevrolet stumbled when the green flag flew, forcing him down pit road for the team to investigate what was wrong with the car. The team talked Earnhardt through resetting the ECU in the car, which allowed him to get full power back and return to the track, albeit two laps down.
As the race progressed, Earnhardt was able to make his way back onto the lead lap courtesy of the wave around and the free pass and from that point, he set his sights on climbing back up the leaderboard. Due to the late cautions that hurt some drivers, Earnhardt got the luck of the draw, restarting in the outside lane each time and was able to climb all the way to second place as the race drew to a close.
The second place finish was his second straight runner-up finish after accomplishing the same feat last weekend in Texas, allowing Earnhardt and his team to continue their momentum in search of their first win of the season.
So, what exactly happened at the start of the race to force him to pit road? Earnhardt explained what happened in his post-race press session.
“We got the Roush system on our cars for the stuck-throttle issue, and just warming the brakes up, I engaged that system to kill the throttle. I was warming the brakes up like I always do, and apparently I applied too much pressure and it killed the motor. We’ll work on that and maybe raise that threshold a little bit because I wasn’t really using the brake that much,” Earnhardt said.
“If your throttle is stuck and you mash the brake to a certain, you’re going to mash the (expletive) out of that brake when the throttle sticks, it’ll shut the motor off. That’s a system, that’s one of the two systems that you have to choose from in this sport. The other is a button on the steering wheel. I don’t like the button on the steering wheel, because when the throttle sticks, I ain’t going to think mash a button. I’ll be in the fence before it’s over with. So the brake thing works too good.”
“So I just needed to cycle the ECU, reset that, came to pit road and did that. I probably could’ve done it on the track and saved ourselves a lot of trouble, but you don’t know what’s going on at that particular point, and you listen to the first thing anybody tells you when it comes to direction, and the first thing that my spotter said was that if I need to pit, I need to come on now. We got on pit road, cycled it, lost a couple laps. Greg did a good job getting the wave-arounds and knowing when to take them and stuff, and we got back on the lead lap. We had about a 10th-place car. We weren’t really that good all day. We tried a setup that we’ve never really ran here before, just trying to learn a little something going forward, and we’ll go home and science it out a little bit.”
Earnhardt also mentioned that he did not panic when the early race issues happened, knowing he had plenty of time to make up the ground he lost and that he had a great team supporting him.
“I turned 40. Quit panicking. It is what it is these days,” said Earnhardt. “You know, as I got older, I tried harder to enjoy what I’m doing, and not get really upset and too out of shape when things aren’t going our way, plus I know Greg and them guys are on the pit box trying everything they can, and for me to — they’re the only ones I’m going to be able to yell at, so for me to — it doesn’t do any good to be hollering at them or upset or just lose your mind, and the over-the-wall guys especially, we don’t really spend a ton of time with the over-the-wall guys, and they’re real sensitive. They’re big ol’ guys and athletes, but they’ve got big hearts, too, so you can’t be screaming and coming unglued because they don’t want to work for people like that.”
“Just trying to have more fun and enjoy it. We had a little trouble early, and it just made today more difficult and made the challenge more fun, made it a bigger challenge than it was, and to run second, it’s a great feeling to come back from what we did. It’s something to smile about.”
Heading to next weekend’s race at Richmond, Earnhardt has four top-five finishes, five top-10 finishes, 49 laps led, and an average finish of 10.0 in the first eight races of the season to move him to sixth place in points.
Photo by Matt Hazlett/Getty Images