FORT WORTH, Texas: Hendrick Motorsports has so far put up one of the most impressive team performance in the 2016 NASCAR season, with four its drivers among the top eight finishers in last weekend’s Duck Commander 500 at the Texas Motor Speedway.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 led the team with a runner-up finish to eventual winner Kyle Busch while Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender Chase Elliott scored a career-best fifth-place showing, just getting beaten at the start/finish line by three-time defending Texas champ Jimmie Johnson. Meanwhile, Kasey Kahne celebrated his 36th birthday early on Sunday (Monday in Manila) with a hard-fought, eighth-place rally in the race’s overnight hours for his second top-10 finish of the season.
But although each driver fared similarly well, each driver’s route to a successful night was widely varied.
Earnhardt ran among the top 10 most of the race, which started nearly two hours late because of rain showers. He chased down Busch in the closing laps, coming just 3.9 seconds shy of his first win of the season and that coveted automatic post-season berth for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
“We got lucky at the end to be able to restart on the inside,” Earnhardt said of the race’s final restart with 33 laps remaining. “The outside was kind of difficult and we restarted fifth and were able to get up to third and raced the 22 [of Joey Logano]at the end.”
“It was fun. The car was very loose and very challenging but a lot of fun for me,” he added.
Of the Hendrick team’s night, Earnhardt said, “I think the company as a whole is pushing real hard to improve and there’s an impression within the company that we need to grind a little bit and make some gains going forward into the middle of the season here. But I was real encouraged with my car tonight.”
Elliott echoed Earnhardt’s cautious optimism. He was encouraged to score a career-best finish, but still insistent that the only true success is a trophy as he navigates an understandably large learning curve.
“I definitely think it was a solid night,” Elliott said. “It’s not a perfect night.”
“We would love to turn all four cars in the top 10 to having all four cars in the top five, and I think that’s a goal we have to shoot for. We’re excited to run in the top five. We’re also not content and we want to be contenders and running fifth isn’t a contender. You’ve got to be up a little higher. That’s our goal and we’ll keep working at it,” he added.
Johnson, a heavy favorite to mark his fourth straight win, had to overcome multiple setbacks in the race from front-end damage on the first pit stop to navigating heavy traffic to bad timing during a caution period that put him at the end of the lead lap in the waning portion of the race.
“We had plenty of adversity tonight,” said Johnson, who now trails Busch by six points in the season standings. “What a fight this was and I’m very proud of this race team. There were four or five things that went on tonight.”
“I really liked [crew chief]Chad’s [Knaus] strategy at the end to keep putting four tires on it and put us in an offensive situation. I feel like the No. 24 [Elliott] and I could have worked our way to the lead but it didn’t quite work out,” he added.
His team-mate Kahne shared the race review. He joked that he spent at least two hours just trying to race his way back onto the lead lap. The effort resulted in a season-best finish, however, after three consecutive finishes of 22nd or worse even after starting from the outside pole position last week at Martinsville.
“You’re fighting all night,” Kahne said of getting back on the lead lap. “It’s always someone different and someone fast and it was tough.”
“About the time you get to be first behind the lapped down cars, someone in front gets lapped. It took a long time to get back on the lead lap and a lot of battling,” he added.
Kahne was also involved in a late race incident with fellow Washington state native Greg Biffle, whose No. 16 Ford hit the wall and ended up scored 39th in the 40-car field.
Overall, Kahne was encouraged by his team’s showing in Texas. And he’s glad to be going to Bristol this week, where he won in 2013 after starting on the front row.