Earnhardt Jr. just can’t catch a break
RICHMOND, VA. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. took a couple of laps around Richmond Raceway and pulled down pit road.
As his passenger exited and he prepared to begin another ride, fluid dripped from behind his No. 88 Chevrolet forcing Earnhardt to go to a backup car.
It was the perfect microcosm of 2017 for NASCAR’s most popular driver, who can’t seem to catch a break on the race track — even during a fun, promotional event.
Earnhardt was at Richmond Tuesday hosting members of the Washington Redskins, whose training camp is a few miles down the road from the track that will stage the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regular-season finale next month. It was an ideal work event for the 42-year old, combining his twin passions — racing and Redskins football — but even this activity went awry, like much of his final season as a fulltime Cup driver.
Earnhardt had just taken linebacker Will Compton for a spin around the .75-mile track in his Axalta Chevrolet and was gearing up for his next ride with quarterback Kirk Cousins, when track officials noticed rear coolant fluid leaking from his car onto pit road. Staff scrambled to jack up the car and make repairs but time was short; the players needed to return to training camp.
Not deterred, Earnhardt jumped behind the wheel of a Chevrolet Camaro pace car with Cousins strapping into the passenger seat, and the duo roared out onto the track. Linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, tackle Morgan Moses and cornerback Josh Norman followed in the Camaro, and just as an exhilarated Norman exited the car, the No. 88 was repaired and ready to go. There was time for one more ride in Earnhardt’s No. 88, and an ecstatic Norman eagerly climbed in.
Just like he has all season, Earnhardt made the best of a frustrating situation.
The Hendrick Motorsports driver has seven DNFs in 22 Cup starts — including his most recent race last Sunday at Watkins Glen International — in what was supposed to be one final glorious season for the longtime face of NASCAR. Earnhardt acknowledged this year has been much more difficult and disappointing than he anticipated.
“Not running well, it hurts,” said Earnhardt, who has scored just four top-10 finishes in 2017. “You get disappointed about it and you get frustrated. We know what we’re capable of as a team. The one thing that’s important, though, is that you got a dozen guys that work on that car, and if one of us falls apart emotionally over this whole deal, it’s going to affect the whole team. So the only thing you can do is put a smile on your face and tell the guys to be ready for the next race.
“It sucks and it’s hard to shake that off and right yourself mentally and emotionally, but it’s important to be able to do that.”
Earnhardt has four regular-season races remaining before the 16-driver playoff field will be set. Ranked 23rd in the standings, his only chance to compete for an elusive championship after 19 years in NASCAR’s premier series is to win one of those races.
His next opportunity comes this weekend at Michigan International Speedway, where he has reached victory lane twice — in 2008 and 2012. Races at Bristol Motor Speedway and Darlington Raceway follow before the series returns to Richmond on Sept. 9.
Asked to rate his comfort level at the four tracks, Earnhardt hesitated a moment before ranking them.
“I’m probably most comfortable at Michigan because we’ve had a couple of wins there in the last few years,” Earnhardt said. “Richmond is a track that I’ve had a lot of success at, though not so much recently. (Earnhardt has three career Cup wins at Richmond, most recently in 2006.)
“I love racing at Bristol, but man is that a tough place to win. We finished second there last year, but it’s a tough track to go to and expect to win — everything has got to go right for you on that track.
“Darlington, for me, is really the toughest track physically and mentally. Aside from Sonoma, it’s probably the hardest track to race at, so it’s a big challenge.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was at Richmond Tuesday hosting members of his beloved Washington Redskins, whose training camp is a few miles down the road.