Dale Earnhardt Jr. returns to form in strong final run at Dover

Nigel Kinrade/NKP

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

Returning to the site of one of his most memorable wins – an emotional triumph in the first Cup Series race after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks – for the final time, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports (HMS) team returned to form with a strong weekend at Dover International Speedway.

While most storylines trended towards HMS teammates Chase Elliott, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne and the other 13 playoff contenders in the Round of 16 elimination race, Earnhardt entered Dover strong – sitting inside of the top 10 on the speed charts for most of the weekend and qualifying seventh.

Any fears that Earnhardt’s qualifying pace wouldn’t translate to a strong race were quickly quelled early in Sunday’s Apache Warrior 400, as Earnhardt quickly rose inside of the top five. The two-time Daytona 500 winner would run as high as third before drifting back into the latter half of the top 10.

He didn’t have the speed of teammates Elliott and Johnson to sustain a position inside of the top five, but Earnhardt hovered inside of the top 10 for the majority of the afternoon before taking the checkered flag in seventh.

“We probably showed a little bit more speed at different times during the weekend than where we ended up,” Earnhardt said. “I was talking to (Ryan) Blaney last night and he said, ‘man, you guys are so fast.’ And I told him I would just take a top ten after the year that I have had.  I know the car was good enough to run in the top five and we showed that at certain points in the race and certain points of the weekend too.  But the car was good off the truck, we tinkered with it, and I don’t know if we made it a lot better.  We had a little trouble with trying to get through tech inspection.

“I guess we don’t need to run so good in practice because we had a hard time this weekend and lost a little time in happy hour.  You know, I like that rule because it was a disadvantage to us.  Not an excuse but still it made the weekend a little bit more difficult.  So, it’s certainly a good deterrent.  Next week we just need to get enough practice.  But first off, we need to come off the truck like we did this weekend.”

The result ended a lengthy streak of struggles for Earnhardt. The top 10 was only his fifth of the season, and the first for the North Carolinian since Sonoma Raceway in June.

“I feel like a road course ringer,” Earnhardt joked.  “It feels good.”

“This team is really a good team and we have just had a lot of odd misfortune and we have ill-prepared ourselves at times.  When the car is good, it seems like we have some bad luck.  Then there are weekends where we just can’t get the car right.  It’s been a pretty down year but hopefully this weekend is the start of some more good runs.  I think we will end this thing strong and I am excited.”

Earnhardt has just seven races remaining in his career as a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver. He’ll retire from full-time competition at year’s end after 20 seasons of full-time competition in the NASCAR XFINITY Series and Cup Series.

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