Earnhardt’s Drive Goes Flat
Nothing went right for Dale Earnhardt Jr. on Sunday -- and he had his left front tire to blame.
Twice in the first 60 laps, and three times total, the left front tire went down on the red No. 8 Chevrolet of NASCAR’s poster boy, and he continued to struggle at California Speedway.
Earnhardt finished 32nd in the Auto Club 500, another in a string of dreary results that are becoming too common to be coincidence.
“I’d like to run good here in front of this crowd, but this place ain’t done me no favors,” said Earnhardt, who finished 13 laps behind winner Greg Biffle. “Them tires going flat, that was just weird.
“We didn’t see that at all during practice.”
Earnhardt has raced on Fontana’s two-mile oval seven times. He has cracked the top 10 twice -- he finished third in 2001 and sixth in 2003.
But four times in the last five races, he has finished 19th or worse -- much worse.
He crashed and finished 34th last September under the lights, and 19th last May on a brutally hot day.
In 2002, Earnhardt crashed, suffered a concussion and finished 36th.
His struggles Sunday, in the season’s second race, were owed to problems on the car’s left front tires, and neither he nor new crew chief Pete Rondeau had a clear idea what the problem was.
“Camber, I suppose,” Earnhardt said. “Tire temperature on the outside edge was 280 degrees and inside edge was 112.”
Other than that, Earnhardt said, he had a good car. “I knew we were going to get in the top 10 and have a good finish,” he said.
He started 40th, and moved up to 27th by Lap 20.
Still, he was forced to pit under a green flag on Lap 38 because of a flat tire and lost a lap. He fell to 40th.
It got worse. He had a tire shred on Lap 59 that brought out a caution for debris. Before taking the green flag, Earnhardt pitted a second time hoping to find a solution. By the time he rejoined the field, he was four laps behind leader Matt Kenseth.
He had a third flat tire on Lap 106.
Earnhardt, who finished third a week ago at the Daytona 500, one of the four restrictor-plate races that he and DEI teammate Michael Waltrip do so well in, dropped to 14th in the championship after two races, 103 behind leader Kurt Busch.
In his sixth full season, Earnhardt is still trying to win his first championship for his stepmother and DEI team owner Teresa Earnhardt, widow of seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt.
There’s a long way to go before the 10-race shootout among the top 10 drivers to determine a champion -- Earnhardt finished fifth last season -- but to race for the championship, he must first qualify.
With two races among the first 26, California could play a pivotal role in Earnhardt’s fortunes.