WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — Story and photo by Race Chaser Online Correspondent Kyle Magda — Hendrick Motorsports (HMS) driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr. won Sunday’s GoBowling.com 400 to complete the Pocono sweep, but with Pocono in the rear-view mirror, the new Chase Grid leader is more poised than ever to lead the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series to the 2.45 mile road course at Watkins Glen International.
Self-admittedly lacking in past road-course starts, Earnhardt scored his best career road course finish in the Sonoma race in June with a third and raised his confidence level heading into the Cheez-It 355 at the Glen.
“I think that what we did was sit back and let everyone else do the heavy lifting, go do testing and we get the notes and information and sort of cherry pick what we think can use and we ended up with a pretty good car on the track,” Earnhardt said of the performance. “Steve (Letarte) did some great strategy to get me newer tires to be on offense at the end of that race at Sonoma.”
The No. 88 team didn’t test at any road courses this season and the results paid off with the notes from his Hendrick teammates.
“I hope we can take what we learned from everybody that tested and what we learned from Sonoma and put a good car on the track that’s competitive at the Glen,” Earnhardt said.
Sonoma and Watkins Glen have many differences, even though they both have 11 turns.
The Sonoma race track in California is more technical and more focused on passing zones, while the Glen is more about high speed due to the long straightaways, including from Turn 11 to Turn 1.
“I think I could do a better job at the Glen because it’s not as technical as Sonoma,” Earnhardt said. “I think I’ll be more confident in myself and what I’m doing in the car to be able to request what I think the car needs and how it can improve.”
The third-place finish at Sonoma tied his career best road course showing, with the other one coming at Watkins Glen in 2003.
Teams have to run a road course race backwards by pitting as soon as they possibly can to gain track position. Geoff Bodine was one of the first drivers to try it at the Glen in 1996 and went on to win the race. With strategy coming into play this week at Watkins Glen, Earnhardt says Letarte is one of the best when it comes to the topic.
“He’s the best guy on the box when it comes to strategy,” Junior added. “I’m sure if we can cook something up at a place like a road course we can do it anywhere.”
The Letarte-Earnhardt combo has scored four wins since the 2011 season and even though the No. 88 team has been on their game this season, the 39-year-old driver says they can’t get too over-confident.
“You don’t wanna start thinking too far ahead,” he said. “The tracks and the cars and the job we do that’s so technical, you really gotta approach it one day at a time to be able to do it right and well. When the Chase comes around, I think that the cars we need will be there. The engineers will have their jobs done week and week out and Steve will have the information in front of him he needs to call the races.”
Earnhardt had a similar season 10 years ago, when he and his No. 8 Dale Earnhardt, Inc. (DEI) team scored six victories, but fell short of winning the inaugural Chase for the Sprint Cup in 2004. He also won the Daytona 500 that year and grabbed his second victory in the Great American Race this February.
Junior looks to add to Hendrick’s two-race winning streak Sunday at the Glen, where HMS hasn’t won since 2001 with current points leader Jeff Gordon.
And if he can pull it off? With the way his season has gone so far, let’s just say no one would be surprised.