Caraviello: Earnhardt, Letarte show their mettle at Michigan

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Caraviello: Earnhardt, Letarte show their mettle at Michigan
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Caraviello: Earnhardt, Letarte show their mettle at Michigan

Dale Earnhardt Jr. struggled to sleep Saturday night, and it wasn't because he had suffered through his worst finishes of the season in each of the past two weeks. It wasn't because he had seen his Sprint Cup points lead transformed into a deficit. It wasn't because he was feeling the pressure to become the first driver in 17 years to sweep both races in a single season at Michigan International Speedway.

It was because he was embarrassed.

"I don't know if I can count on two hands the number of times I've spun a car out myself," Earnhardt said Sunday at the 2-mile track. "I pride myself on having a good reputation of keeping cars in one piece to try to bring them home, and not spend a lot of money on the race track wrecking cars. I just really felt like I was under a lot of pressure [Sunday] to put together a good race. A lot of pressure."

Video:Junior hits wall in practice, goes to a backup

Pressure, indeed. NASCAR's most popular driver was forced into a backup car after spinning on his own near the end of final practice Saturday, casting Earnhardt's return to the track where he broke his 147-race winless streak in an inauspicious light. Not only did it take away the same car that dominated here two months ago -- all they did was wash it, the driver said -- but it happened so late in practice, he wasn't able to get any laps in the replacement vehicle before the race. So here he was, starting from the rear, in a car he had plenty of questions about, with Hendrick Motorsports engines blowing up all around him like popcorn kernels, needing to stem the tide coming off the two worst finishes of his season.

So yes, internally and externally, there was pressure. This was one of those weekends that would give us an indication of how much of a championship contender Earnhardt really was, given that his past two victories had come in Michigan, and he didn't want to lose any more momentum as the Chase crept within a few weeks. The response wasn't a victory, as so many in the estimated crowd of 83,000 surely hoped for. But it did show plenty of mettle nonetheless, given that Earnhardt slid behind the wheel of a 3,400-pound unknown and still challenged for the victory until eventually finishing fourth.

"I don't think we had to get something as far as win," crew chief Steve Letarte said. "I think that it was important for our team to prove to ourselves that we can bring out a backup car and prepare it, and put the setup in it. It's kind of like, it's easy to say you can win a race until you do it. When you watch a team going to a backup car, you'd like to think you can have some success with yours. I think we proved today we've got a lot of bullets."

In recent weeks, those bullets have flown a little off course. Two weeks ago at Pocono, Earnhardt suffered a transmission failure that forced him off the lead lap for the first time this season. Seven days later on the road course at Watkins Glen International, he spun while contending for a top-10 finish and wound up 28th. He fell from the points lead to fourth in the standings. Throughout it all, though, there was always Michigan, that big D-shaped haven where Earnhardt has so often run so well, a golden opportunity to get that one more victory to inch him a little closer to the top Chase seed.

And then, with only moments left in final practice Saturday -- clank. They had tested the backup car two months earlier at Michigan, had finished third with it in a rain-shortened event on a 2-mile Auto Club Speedway very similar to this one, and Earnhardt professed confidence Saturday afternoon hours after the spin. Then he went to bed and stared at the ceiling, wondering how the thing would handle at 200 mph under green-flag conditions. The big concern? "Not knowing whether it's going to turn left or right going into the corner," he said. "These things have so many variables on them."

Across the motorhome lot, Letarte was consumed by the same issue. As is custom when it comes to backups, NASCAR had allowed the No. 88 crew an extra hour in the garage area to work on the second car. Well after the gates were finally locked, there was still more to do. "It looked like an office supply store had exploded in my motorhome last night about midnight, because there were so many papers out," the crew chief said.

With two poor finishes behind them and further adversity staring them in the face, there was ample opportunity to continue what was in danger of quickly becoming a slump. Instead, they rebounded with an effort reminiscent of the No. 48 team's on-the-fly rebuild in the thick of the 2009 championship race, which helped Jimmie Johnson salvage points at Texas in the season's third-to-last event. When they rolled that backup No. 88 car onto the grid Sunday morning, they knew it needed to be close. Starting in the rear and forced to make up so much ground, they were doomed if they were off. They got it almost all the way there, enough to take the lead with the help of some pit strategy, even if the vehicle couldn't quite hang with the leaders during a pair of late restarts.

The end result was fourth place. A pair of short tracks, typically an Earnhardt strong suit, remain before the Chase. Momentum is back on the side of the No. 88 team again. Crisis averted. "There are a thousand things that can go wrong," Letarte said. "I was real proud of the guys [Sunday]. This is a true testament to the strength of the team we have. If we'd have been a little bit better, we'd have had a shot at the win. But we weren't quite good enough."

Even so: "The guys did a really good job getting the car close, getting the car competitive," Earnhardt said. "We put a car on the starting grid we hadn't even put any laps on. That's just impressive as hell, and they deserve all the credit."

Clearly, it wasn't perfect. The splitter height wasn't exactly right, and the vehicle proved a handful when Earnhardt was battling Johnson for the lead on a late restart. "On the edge every lap," he reported after being overtaken by his teammate. But it was fast enough to put him the mix, and good enough to make Earnhardt wonder what might have been possible had they had a little practice time left to work on it.

"Probably should have won," he said.

They may very well have had a shot, given that Johnson's engine expired as he led the race with only six laps remaining. But Sunday in Michigan, fourth place was enough to bring a little swagger back to a driver clearly beating himself up after spinning his race car in each of the past two weeks. And it was enough to provide a confidence boost to a program that needed to get things going in a more positive direction -- and under trying circumstances, did just that.

"We've had a couple of bad weeks, and we haven't let that get to us," Earnhardt said. "I'm glad we're back on the upswing running like we should."

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