15-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Most Popular Driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has struggled in 2016 compared to recent seasons. But after a second-place finish at Pocono Raceway, he is attempting to turn the No. 88 team in the right direction.
Through 15 races this season, the No. 88 team has four second-place finishes, but a disappointing six top-10 efforts. In the same amount of time last season, Earnhardt had eight top 10s en route to tying a career-high 22 top-10 finishes.
Most recently, Earnhardt is coming off a 39th-place finish in Michigan, after getting caught up in a wreck with Chris Buescher and AJ Allmendinger.
Earnhardt and Ives combined for three victories in 2015 and by this point had already solidified themselves into the Chase with a win at Talladega. Currently, the team is sitting 30 points above the Chase cutoff in the 11th position.
“We started the year out great,” Earnhardt told Speedway Digest regarding his season. “We were running really well and got a couple of second-place finishes, and it looked like we were on the brink of winning. This past month [May leading into June] has been kind of rough, but we will get it figured out.”
Speed is a large part of the issue for the No. 88 car, according to Earnhardt. He had no top-10 finishes in the month of May runs at some of his best tracks, including Talladega, where he has been victorious six times. He has also had respectable runs at Kansas, Dover and Charlotte since he started working with Steve Letarte in 2011.
His best finish over the course of those four races was 14th at Charlotte despite have a third-place effort in the Sprint All-Star Race while utilizing a possible aero package for 2017.
Earnhardt has been out front for 53 laps this season, leading laps in three of the 14 races, including the season-opening Daytona 500, the fourth race of the year at Phoenix and most recently at Pocono.
A beat of the upcoming racetracks on the schedule is where the No. 88 team has excelled in previous seasons. Earnhardt has multiple victories at Pocono, Michigan and Daytona. He is the defending winner of the July race at Daytona and swept the two Pocono events in 2014. In 2012, he put an end to a 143-race winless streak at Michigan.
“I think that we would like to gain some speed,” Earnhardt said. “There are some tracks coming up that I think we could run really well at, Pocono is one of them, Michigan, New Hampshire. There are some tracks coming up that we feel like we can improve, learn and get some good information.”
Back when Letarte first took over as crew chief for Earnhardt, it took the duo about a year and a half to settle in.
Over the next few weeks, the team is approaching the year and a half mark with Ives but overall, the statistics are stronger with Ives atop the pit box.
In 50 races with Ives as crew chief, the duo has earned three victories, with 21 top-five finishes. In that same time span with Letarte, Earnhardt was winless, with nine top fives.
“I think the crew chief is the leader,” Earnhardt stated. “He’s with the guys every day in the shop and at the racetrack. I lean on Greg to sort of be the leader and get these guys fired up.
“I think he does a good job and we had a great year last year and started this year very good. We’ve had a little bit of a rough patch here, but you’re going to have some adversity and you’ll have to deal with that from time-to-time. I feel like he does a good job. As a member of the team, you don’t want to be a part of the problem, you want to be a part of the solution. You just have to try and keep everybody’s morale up and try not to make a bad situation worse.”
Looking at Hendrick Motorsports as a whole in 2016, rookie Chase Elliott leads the team with 11 top-10 finishes. Six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is the only driver to pull into Victory Lane, doing it twice at Atlanta and Fontana.
“When you work with a different guy you learn what works for him and try to communicate with him,” Earnhardt said. “It’s not too challenging and it’s not extremely different than working with Steve. When you are hitting on all cylinders and you are running well, things come a lot easier.”
It is an open door policy at HMS. When a driver needs help on race setup or even qualifying trim, the other teammates are there to help each other. The crew chiefs work closely together, though, the race team is split up into two shops on the team’s campus in Concord, N.C. In one shop, it’s the Nos. 48 team and No. 88 teams, with the other shop made up of the No. 5 team of Kasey Kahne and the No. 24 car.
Since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, Earnhardt and Johnson have worked extremely well together, according to Earnhardt. They are the two elder statesmen as of now on the winningest team in NASCAR history. Both drivers want to improve on that.
One thing that Earnhardt has been very critical of this year is the way the team is qualifying. The No. 88 Chevrolet has started outside of the top 20 nine times in 2016. Throughout the entire 36-race season last year, he started outside of the top 20 eight times.
“It makes racing difficult because you have to find a way to get to the front,” he said. “At times, it’s a lot fun to try and get to the front, but you certainly would like to make it easier on yourself with qualifying better. It’s been a big challenge trying to find the right balance for us and get speed. “
Though Earnhardt has six solid finishes this season, the first stint of the race seems to be about rebounding for the team, attempting to drive the car halfway through the field.
But the qualifying efforts have surprised Earnhardt for that reason.
The car has raced well all season. Through some bad luck and unfortunate circumstances, he has three DNF’s, two coming at Daytona and Talladega, his two best racetracks with a combined 10 wins.
“We always end up being one of the top five cars in lap times during the race,” Earnhardt elaborated. “We’re one of the fastest cars in the race, we just can’t do it in qualifying.”
This is Earnhardt’s 18th season in the Cup Series, making him one of the longest tenured drivers in the sport’s top series. Matt Kenseth and he have the longest streak of full-time seasons.
Earnhardt, 41, owns JR Motorsports, a NASCAR XFINITY Series and Camping World Truck Series team. There is always the option after to race back down into the lower divisions of NASCAR, but admittedly so, he doesn’t want to race as long as his father did.
“I want to run in the XFINITY Series for JR Motorsports as long as it helps the company,” Earnhardt said of his organization. “I think it would be racing a late model race here and there with the late model program. That’s reasonably affordable and would probably enjoy doing on and off into my 50s and 60s if that’s what you wish.”
2017 is a contract year for Earnhardt after previously signing a deal in 2011 to stick around with HMS. However, his future is still up in the air with no extension signed as of mid-2016.
Earnhardt would like to finish his Cup Series career with Hendrick Motorsports, which he has called home for the past eight years.
“It’s great to have it all wrapped up so quickly and far in advance,” Earnhardt said prior to his last contract “Rick [Hendrick] and I were on the same page from the first time we talked about it, so there wasn’t any sense in waiting. There were never any questions or hesitations from either of us. It was just, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’”
With sponsorship from Nationwide, Axalta, Mountain Dew and TaxSlayer.com, it would be hard for Earnhardt to leave Hendrick Motorsports. The companies have combined to fund his efforts for the entire year, led by Nationwide’s 21 events as a primary sponsor and 13 from Axalta after working with four-time champion Jeff Gordon.
“It’s something that we haven’t started to sit down and talk about,” Earnhardt said of his future. “We will see what Rick [Hendrick] wants to do with his direction and future is for the team. We will see if that lines up with what I want to do. I don’t think I will race as long as my dad did, but I have been having a lot of fun over the past couple of years.
“I would hate to walk away from such a good opportunity prematurely, but when it comes down to it, Rick is the boss and what is future and direction of the team is important. I’m sure we will get talking about what we want to do past this contract in the next six months.”
With a sixth-place finish as Pocono on Monday, Kasey Kahne has put the past in the rear view mirror and is focusing on a stretch of races that he expects to perform well at.
In the latter part of the 400-mile event at Pocono, Kahne surged through the field to be the third Hendrick Motorsports cars in the top six, Jimmie Johnson crashed out on Lap 122.
“Our car was real solid,” Kahne said post-race in Pocono. “I think we can take something similar to Michigan next week, it’s a similar racetrack in a lot of ways.”
Sitting 18th in the point standings, 13 markers behind the Chase cutoff, Kahne and the No. 5 team are coming to a string of racetracks that the team has normally ran well at.
Kahne has won at each of the next two race tracks, Michigan and Sonoma. In his career the summer months have fared well for him. He’s won at tracks including New Hampshire, Pocono and Bristol in a little over four years with Hendrick Motorsports.
Compared to last season, the No. 5 team is sits 10 positions further back through 14 events. However, it was the summer months that led to the downfall of Kahne and his race team in 2015.
In the final 12 races leading up to the Chase in 2015, Kahne averaged a 22.6 average finish, dropping him from eighth to 18th in the standings. That’s where he finished the season in points, the lowest since 2010 when he was 20th in the point’s, driving for Richard Petty Motorsports.
“I’m frustrated a lot,” Kahne said of his season. “I hate running bad. I’m not happy with the results. Two weeks in a row at Charlotte we should have been competing for top fives and we had no chance.”
The No. 5 car has an average finish of 16.7 thus far in 2016, having yet to lead a single lap.
His three Hendrick Motorsports teammates have combined to lead 360 laps, including a race-high 51 by Chase Elliott in Pocono.
Kahne believes that this next stretch of races could make, or break his year. Paired with crew chief Keith Rodden for the second consecutive season, the duo needs to perform up to Hendrick Motorsports standards.
“This is good for momentum just to know that we hit on a couple of things with the car,” Kahne said after finish sixth. “I look forward to running something very similar at Michigan and then we’ll go to Sonoma and that’s probably my favorite racetrack. Hopefully we can run really well and start clicking off top 10s each week in order to get into Victory Lane.”
Kahne has two top-five finishes so far this season with a pair of fourth-place efforts at Richmond and Dover. In each of the past two seasons, the No. 5 car finished in the top five, three times.
As the circuit comes to some of Kahne’s favorite tracks, he must continue to put a line of consistency on the board in order to make this year’s addition of the Chase. If not, it will be his third consecutive season of finishing 15th or worse in the point standings.
Trevor Bayne, Greg Biffle, and Kyle Larson used the Sprint Showdown to run in tonight’s Sprint All Star Race. Chase Elliott and Danica Patrick won the fan vote in order to advance. After being washed out yesterday, today’s Sprint Showdown showed intensity from the drivers to make tonight’s race.
In the first 20 lap segment, Trevor Bayne became the surprise winner upsetting Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney who were running one-two before the final one lap dash, after the caution waved with five laps to go.
In a Ford press release, Bayne stated, “We had a fast race car for no practice and no teammates in the earlier practice. My guys did a great job guessing where we should start at. The car was good in clean air, but in dirty air I just couldn’t go, so with one lap to go all you’ve got is the restart and I kind of treated it like it was for the win for the All-Star Race for a million bucks. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to get in. I thought that would be our best shot. I got a good restart and off two there was a tiny hole and somehow our car got through it without getting beat up, so we’ll take it.”
When the caution flag flew in the first segment, Kyle Larson and others went ahead and took two tires because they knew that they would have to come down within two laps to take the mandatory two tires between segments. Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott started on the front row, but Blaney was black-flagged for jumping the restart. Bayne and Elliott battled it out on the final lap, leaving Bayne with a margin of victory of .005-seconds. During the segment break, Brian Scott was found to have a loose lug nut following the mandatory lug nut check after the pit stops.
The second segment started with Chase Elliott at the front, but once the segment started, he was tight, which caused him to drop in positions. Austin Dillon took the lead from Elliott. However, a possible tire issue occurred causing him to fall back, giving Biffle the race leader. Biffle was able to set sail to win the second segment.
Greg Biffle, being one of the few drivers to play the four tire strategy, explains the decision that ultimately led for him to win segment two. “Brian Pattie is a very, very smart veteran crew chief in this sport and it was his call. I was skeptical of it, trust me, but I tell you what, what really made the difference was we made a chassis adjustment, two left side tires, the car was really fast the last single lap that we made under green and I was able to pass four cars in one lap. Then we came down and the guys ripped off a great two-tire stop like a lot of other cars did and got us out third. Really, that’s what did it. I was being as aggressive as I could be, and I knew it was 20 laps and I knew that was my chance. The 3 car was a little bit loose and so was I, but I made some adjustments on my driving style and was able to get by him.”
The third segment saw the momentum from Chase Elliott return, a momentum that was lost during the second segment. The last half of the 10-lap third segment saw Larson and Elliott battling for the lead. Coming off of turn four in the final lap, Elliott and Larson were neck and neck heading to the line. In a 2003 Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch at Darlington style, Elliott and Larson were beating and banging, using the wall as the mediator. Larson was able to hold off Elliott to win the third segment.
“I knew (Elliott) was going to be good on four tires and was probably going to win the fan vote, so I knew I had to win because I knew I wasn’t going to win the fan vote,” Larson said. “So, I did what I could do. Hopefully, they can repair the right side good enough or we can pull out the backup — or whatever. "I’m sure Chase is upset with me. He has all the reason in the world to be but hey, tonight we’re going for a million bucks and I’ve never had a chance to do that before. Hopefully we can get this car back in victory lane and hold a big check later.”
Elliott and Larson are allowed to go to a backup car for the Sprint All Star race, according to NASCAR, if they cannot fix their cars.
Qualifying for tonight’s Sprint All Star Race will begin at 7 pm on Fox Sports 1.
Rick Hendrick (1949-present) is currently a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team owner. He fields four cars piloted by, Chase Elliott, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Kasey Kahne. He has been active as a team owner since 1984.
Rick Hendrick drove for two races in the 1987 and 1988 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. He is also credited with a single start in the NASCAR Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series.
Before owning a team in NASCAR, Hendrick started out owning a boat racing team that won three consecutive championships. After that, he started a team in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, which earned one victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway with Dale Earnhardt. In 1984, Hendrick started All Star Racing with Geoff Bodine as the driver. In that opening season, Hendrick’s team raced their way into all 30 events, won three times, three pole wins, and finished ninth in the final standings. Hendrick has won 15 Drivers' championships (11 Sprint Cup Series, 1 Xfinity Series, and three Camping World Truck Series), 257 race wins (209 Sprint Cup Series, 23 Xfinity Series, and 25 Truck Series), and 245 pole positions (189 Sprint Cup Series, 35 Xfinity Series, and 21 Truck Series). Those numbers are still growing today. Hendrick is considered one of the winningest owners in NASCAR history.
Hendrick has had his fair share of tragedy. In 2004, a Hendrick Motorsports plane crashed on its way to Martinsville Speedway. The accident killed all ten people on the plane. On the plane included John Hendrick, president of Hendrick Motorsports, and Ricky Hendrick, Rick Hendrick’s son. Hendrick Motorsports won the race in Martinsville, but all members were immediately summoned by NASCAR and told the news of the plane crash.
Hendrick has received numerous awards over his hall of fame career, and the NASCAR Hall of Fame is the next step for Hendrick.
Early on in Sunday’s Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway, it looked like it was going to be just an average day for Kasey Kahne getting into the outside wall.
With grit, determination and a good handling racecar, he was able to rebound for his first top-five finish since Kansas last October.
Kahne, who has struggled since joining HMS in 2012, has just one victory in the past two-and-a-half seasons. In 2014 and 2015 combined he had just six top five finishes combined. However, with a stellar performance at one of his better tracks, he believes that the team may have finally turned the corner.
“It was a strong weekend for our team,” Kahne said post-race. “Communications side with Keith [Rodden, crew chief] and the engineers, just kind of what we worked on, the direction we went was really solid all weekend, similar to Bristol. We just finished it off today.”
The No. 5 team’s best finish in 2016 prior to Richmond was eighth in Texas two weeks ago. At Las Vegas in early March the crew had a 10th-place finish, which is Kahne’s third best finish this season.
There is reason for optimism within the Hendrick camp. Kahne spent more laps in the top five at Richmond than he had in the first eight events combined this season. With an average finish of 16.3, that would be good enough to make the Chase, as he currently sits 14th in the standings, 18 points above the cutoff.
Coming off a season in which he failed to make the Chase for the first time since 2011, Kahne is confident in where the team is going.
“I think it's more being together, being a group, a solid team,” he said. “As we do that, we've been getting better each week. To me that started three, four weeks ago. Each week it seems to get better from the previous week. We're going to keep heading in that direction, I know that, and hopefully the performance stays the same.”