It was the happiest he’d looked after a race in some time.
In fact, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driver of the No. 88 AMP Energy/National Guard Chevrolet, looked almost giddy while talking to TNT pit reporter Marty Snyder after the Heluva Good! 400 at Michigan International Speedway.
He bragged about beating Jeff Burton in those final few laps. He complimented his team and the cars they put together back at Hendrick Motorsports.
Considering it was his first top-10 finish in seven races and that the month of May was as close to Hell as a period of time can come for a NASCAR Sprint Cup driver on the cusp of qualifying for The Chase, it was understandable.
But there’s no rest for the weary. Although one monkey has been shed from the back of Driver 88, at least for the moment, another one climbs on for the weekend. The difference is, this monkey is more like a gorilla.
The Cup series heads to wine country for the weekend.
Sonoma, Calif., is home to Infineon Raceway, the first road course on the circuit. That’s right, we’ve got more right hand turns and elevation changes than you could ask for.
For Earnhardt, it will be a place to turn his seventh place finish at Michigan into a hot streak. To do so, though, he’ll have to so something he’s never done in his career: finish better than 11th at the winding track.
Statistically, Infineon is one his worst tracks. He has an average finish of 21.4, which ranks 18th among the 22 tracks the Cup series currently races at. In ten races at the track, Earnhardt has finished worse than 24th on five occasions.
And, as previously mentioned, he’s never finished higher than 11th.
However, it’s not all gloom and doom for the 88 team this weekend. Earnhardt has been relatively strong at the course the past three years.
In 2007, he finished 13th. In 2008, he finished 12th. Last season, he was battling in the top ten when late contact between Carl Edwards and David Ragan collected him and several other drivers, knocking him back to 35th. He wound up finishing 26th.
The fact he has run relatively well at Infineon along with the fact that he and crew chief Lance McGrew have done extensive road course testing, namely at Carolina Motorsports Park last month, leaves Earnhardt feeling somewhat confident.
“The team has done a lot of testing so hopefully we’ll see the results on the track. We had a good run last year but got wrecked there at the end. I’d like to get a top-10 at Sonoma, and we’ve been close. Road racing is out of my element but I enjoy it.”
Lance McGrew also feels that the recent test will benefit the No. 88 team, as well as the entire Hendrick Motorsports organization.
“We’ve done a lot of testing through the course of the off-season, through the end of last year and a lot with the beginning of this year because we thought the road courses were definitely somewhere where we were very weak last season as a company.
“Alan (Gustafson, crew chief of the No. 5 car) and I decided at the end of last year that we were going to put a lot more effort into it. We’ve done a lot of off-season testing, and we culminated that a few weeks ago with a test with all four of our drivers. We are seeing some benefits to that, and I feel the cars are way more drivable and faster.”
They’ll need to be faster. Earnhardt is currently ranked 14th in points, 81 points behind 12th place Mark Martin. Not an impossible margin to recover from by any means, but it leaves little room for error in these final 11 races before the field is set for The Chase.
This is an important race for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. A good run, or better yet a career run, would be just the shot in the arm the No. 88 team needs to make a summer push. It would also go a long way in showing competitors and fans that Michigan wasn’t a fluke and that the team is homing in on where it was early in 2008.
We'd also see Earnhardt happier than when he was at Michigan. It seems a person getting a figurative primate off their back puts them in a good mood.