CONCORD, N.C. -- It was as if Dale Earnhardt Jr. was driving two different race cars Saturday night.
One surged out front and looked capable of dominating the field at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The other labored in traffic and struggled to maintain position on the lead lap.
Unfortunately for NASCAR's most popular driver, he got more of the latter than the former on the 1.5-mile race track. Earnhardt led 19 laps early in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup event and maintained a spot in the top five for two-thirds of the race, but fell back over the latter stages and wound up 15th and one lap down in an event that marked the halfway point of the playoff.
"The car just got really, really tight," Earnhardt said. "We've got to take it back. Something moved. Something in the setup moved, but the car was real quick at the start of the race. We were just kind of real happy with the speed. ? I don't know what happened. We lost a rubber out of the right-rear spring, or something like that. It just would not turn at all the last half of the race, pretty much. We are just kind of trying to figure out what is going on. We will get it back and figure it out when we get to the shop on Monday."
It was an adventurous night even when the No. 88 car was leading. Very early in the event Earnhardt noticed his temperatures climbing due to debris on the front grille, and numerous attempts to close up to Hendrick Motorsports teammates Kasey Kahne or Jimmie Johnson failed to remove the trash from the front. ?
"Too hot for this early in the race," crew chief Steve Letarte said over the radio. Soon afterward, the call came to pit and have it removed, even though Earnhardt was near the front.
Right before the car ducked onto pit road, though, the debris flew off and allowed Earnhardt to maintain his track position. But things would only get more trying from there, first with a vibration whose source the driver struggled identify, and later with issues that caused the vehicle to labor in traffic.
"Slow," Letarte explained afterward. "I don't know. We freed it up and it kept going slower. We'll talk about it this week and see what we think happened."
It didn't help that the event contained just four cautions, the final two separated by a 130-lap green flag run that left only 11 cars on the lead lap at the time. In Letarte's eyes, the difference between Earnhardt's good car early and balky car late came down to one simple factor.
"Track position," the crew chief said. "We lost a little tack position, and every two rows we went back it got tighter, it got worse. Just with that long green-flag run, there wasn't anything we could do. We needed a yellow somewhere in there. If we'd have gotten a yellow in there, we'd probably have been able to salvage something."
The finish dropped Earnhardt one position to ninth in the Chase standings, 66 points behind leader Matt Kenseth. He's now three points behind Clint Bowyer in eighth, and one point ahead of Carl Edwards in 10th. As has been the case so often this season, Earnhardt seemed to have a good car, only to have some unfortunate circumstance befall it.
"We are having some pretty good cars, we just had something happen tonight," he said. "We are not quite sure what it was. We will find something, I'm sure. The car just doesn't get that tight from running that good without any adjustments. We were freeing it up, moving the track bar, taking wedge out and just getting tighter and tighter. Something wrong with it."
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