Blown tires were an issue for several drivers at the Auto Club 400, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. wasn't spared from the struggles on the track.
But even after suffering a shredded left front tire on Lap 42, Junior was able to rally for a 12th-place finish.
Despite finishing outside of the top 10, Junior finishing on the lead lap and Brad Keselowski sliding down to 26th and being a lap down allowed the No. 88 car to remain in second place in driver standings through five races.
After finishing a disappointing 24th at the Food City 500, Junior's ability to maneuver his way from the back of the pack should give him confidence heading into a race where he has typically finished near the top.
With 21 more races before the Chase for the Sprint Cup officially starts, Junior's early season success is still a great sign that he's ready to contend for a points championship this season. Before the sixth race gets underway at Martinsville Speedway, here's a look at where Earnhardt stands heading into the STP 500.
|2014 Sprint Cup Standings|
|Pos.||Driver||Car||Points||Wins||Top 5||Top 10|
|2||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||88||185||1||3||3|
|Dale Earnhardt Jr. 2014 Results|
|Food City 500||Bristol Motor Speedway||14||24|
|Kobalt 400||Las Vegas Motor Speedway||14||2|
|The Profit on CNBC 500||Phoenix International Raceway||5||2|
|Daytona 500||Daytona International Speedway||9||1|
|Auto Club 400||Auto Club Speedway||15||12|
The fortunate part for Junior at the Auto Club 400 was that he still wound up finishing near the top of the pack. The unfortunate part? He was running ninth when the tire went down.
During a conversation with his fans—which he does on a weekly basis now—Earnhardt divulged on where he thought he would have finished without the tire blowing out:
Once we fixed the body and the front toe it drove pretty good. Top 5 or so maybe. @chayson88— Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) March 24, 2014
After finishing in the top five for the first three races of the season, it's hard to argue with Junior's assessment of his 88 car and the ability to drive it.
Even with the amount of success the 39-year-old has had thus far this year, he still knows he has some homework to do if he wants to maintain the success. Following qualifying for the Auto Club 400, in which he finished just outside of the final stage in 15th, Junior spoke about trying to work with his Hendrick Motorsports teammates, per Tom Jensen of Fox Sports:
I'm going to study what my teammates are doing. And see who is fast and see what their thoughts are on their cars and just try to get the car to handle well on the bottom and the top. We're going to study real hard and try to learn what's to gain in the next 24 hours. It will be a good challenge, though. I like running here. It's a fun place. Even when you're car is off a little bit you can sort of get a line and find a line and work on it. It should be a good race.
While his fans are certainly hoping for Earnhardt at the top of the leaderboard again this coming weekend, the Daytona 500 winner has aspirations of potentially joining another racing circuit.
After speaking with Graham Rahal, the driver of the National Guard Indy Car, Earnhardt is contemplating swapping rides. Here's a look at the conversation between the two:
Following that dialogue, Nick Hayden, who rides Moto GP, also extended an offer of his own:
While it wouldn't be unprecedented for a driver to go from NASCAR to Indy Car—Tony Stewart made the switch and Kurt Busch plans on racing both the Coca-Cola 600 and Indianapolis 500 this season—it's unlikely that fans will be rooting for Earnhardt in Indy Car anytime soon.
As for the race he will be participating in this weekend, Junior has experienced quite a bit of success in Martinsville during his career. Though he has never won a race at the track, a top-10 or even top-five finish isn't out of the realm of possibilities.
Here's a look at some of the career results at the track for the Hendrick driver:
|Dale Earnhardt Jr. Martinsville Career Results|
|Wins||Top 5||Top 10||Avg. Finish||Avg Running Pos.||Driver Rating||Quality Passes|
|0||10||15||13.2||11.0 (4th)||98.9 (4th)||619 (3rd)|
Without a win at Martinsville during his time in NASCAR, expecting one now may be a little too much to ask for. But after the run that he put together at the beginning of the season, envisioning a finish inside the top 10 after two tough races seems like a good possibility.
Though he had a tough result at Bristol, expect his second short-track race to be much better after dealing with adversity.
Predicted Finish: 7th
Follow R. Cory Smith on Twitter. He's got grease under his fingernails.