FONTANA, Calif. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. wanted to get to the top of the race track. And on Sunday's final restart he managed to do just that, riding it right to the top of the standings in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
"The restart before, he wanted to be on the top, and he went to the bottom and it didn't work," said Steve Letarte, Earnhardt's crew chief. "I could tell he was very upset with himself. So we were pretty confident that he was going to the top. And he went to the top, top, tippy-top."
Indeed, there was Earnhardt making one of his patented runs in the high line over the final green-flag run Sunday at Auto Club Speedway, gaining one spot after another and clawing his way to second behind winner Kyle Busch. In the race, he was helped by the mutual assured destruction that rivals Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin unleashed on one another. In the standings, he was helped by a damaged race car that couldn't keep Brad Keselowski at the front.
And in the end there was Earnhardt, picking his way through the field before swooping low to avoid the fracas in front of him, and using his second-place result to seize a 12-point lead over Keselowski in the standings.
"We just stick together," said Earnhardt, the only driver to finish inside the top 10 in each of the first five events this season. "We were pretty good at closing races, something I never really was good at for years, and now we're doing it as good as anybody. Just riding the wave. Just real happy with how things are going for our team."
Earnhardt made up 17 spots over the 10-lap green-flag run that closed the race, and assumed the lead in the standings after Keselowski finished 23rd. Sunday marked the first time NASCAR's most popular driver had led the Sprint Cup Series since last summer, when he was on top for two weeks. Earnhardt ultimately finished 12th in the standings last season after sitting out two races due to concussion symptoms.
"I'd really like it if it were after race 36," Letarte said, referring to the final points event of the season.
Even so, the top spot is indicative of the consistency Earnhardt and his No. 88 team have shown since last season.
"We're racing very well," Letarte added. "I don't think we've had the best cars. I think we've had good cars. I don't think we've been bad. But we're racing vey well, and it feels good to race well. I know that sounds silly, but sometimes we get lost in all this practice speeds and social media and the world and they report every lap and every this and every that. It's a contest of not just speed, but the guy has to get to the finish. You've got to do pit stops, you've got to do restarts, you've got to communicate. We had a lot of stuff not go our way today, so to recover and come back was pretty nice."
No question, Sunday featured its challenges, most notably a 21-second pit stop caused by a dropped lug nut that mired Earnhardt back in 22nd with -- appropriately enough -- 88 laps remaining. "Guys, we can't have those," Letarte told his crew over the radio, sounding like a school principal disappointed in a prized student. Earnhardt urged his team to shake it off. "Just a blip on the radar," the driver said.
"We dropped a lug nut and just didn't do a very efficient job of putting it back on," Letarte said after the race. "We'll have to practice that. Because you can't drop a lug nut and have a 21-second pit stop. It needs to be a 16- or a 15-second pit stop. But it's hard to say much, because man, they have saved the car enough times over the last 10 or 15 races, and I think everybody heard that in Dale's voice in the car. He has a lot more patience, because he sees the potential there."
In what would become a bit of foreshadowing for the end of the race, Earnhardt rapidly picked his way up through traffic. Soon enough, he was back up to 10th. "Hell yeah, buddy. Doing awesome," Letarte told him over the radio.
"Everybody just kind of patted each other on the back, and we were going to get another chance to redeem ourselves on pit road," Earnhardt said afterward. "We had a good car. On that next restart we drove back up to 10th before the next caution, so I felt like we were back up in position to run well and everything was fine. We got a good pit stop on the next caution, and put that mistake behind us."
The pit crew was flawless at the end, although Earnhardt did drop back in traffic once again after a late set of tires didn't agree with his car. It all set the stage for the finish, where Earnhardt was able to take four tires under the last caution and get into his preferred restart position. On the last one, he was right where he wanted to be. And as Earnhardt has done so many times on big tracks, he climbed up the race track and made his climb to the front.
"He's a great closer, and I don't think he gets enough credit for that," Letarte said. In fact, according to NASCAR Loop Data, Earnhardt leads the Sprint Cup Series in the Closers statistic, gaining 26 positions in the final 10 percent of races this season for an average of 5.2 spots gained per race.
"Unfortunately, it hasn't been for the wins, so maybe that's why they haven't seen it. But ? the last 20 percent of every race, I think we've done the most gaining of about anybody. So that feels good to do."
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