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Earnhardt meets struggles on, off track

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SPEEDWAY, Ind. -- NASCAR's 20th event at the Brickyard was barely underway when the red, white and blue race car pulled unexpectedly onto pit road with what the driver correctly suspected was a loose wheel. But that mechanical issue was far from the only difficulty Dale Earnhardt Jr. overcame Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Randy Earnhardt, brother to seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt and uncle to the sport's current most popular driver, died Sunday at the age of 60 after a long battle with cancer. A close confidante to the elder Earnhardt, Randy helped manage Dale Earnhardt Inc. and played a role in shaping Earnhardt Jr.'s early racing career. The driver of the No. 88 car finished sixth Sunday at Indianapolis despite competing with a heavy heart.

"It was really tough," Earnhardt said of his uncle's death. "He helped me through a lot of challenges when I was trying to become a race car driver. He was there when I started driving late models, and I went through the whole process of racing with Tony (Eury) Sr. and all them, and into the Bud car, and Randy was always there. I hurt for my (grandmother) and Randy's brothers and sisters ?. It's just very, very sad. But I'm glad his suffering is over with. But he's going to be missed. He was an awesome dude. Such an awesome guy."

The race, though, presented much less significant challenges that nonetheless demanded Earnhardt's immediate attention. Foremost among them was a rare loose wheel he suffered at the beginning of the race, a condition crew chief Steve Letarte surmised was due to a lug nut not being tightened completely before the 160-lap event went green for the first time.

Initially, Earnhardt wasn't certain that a loose wheel was the cause of the vibration his vehicle had developed, but he took no chances and pitted anyway, dropping him a lap down just 12 circuits into the event. Over the radio, Letarte confirmed the move had been the right one -- the right rear had indeed been left loose.

"The car's shaking real bad and wandering in the back end on the straightaway -- you've got a wheel falling off, you've got something serious happening, you come in," Earnhardt said. "It's dangerous staying out there. You're going to hit the wall or wreck some other people if you do that. It's a long race. We had an early chance to fix that, and that's fine. And it gives us an opportunity to try some different strategies that worked out for us."

It was one big save that required another, particularly since the unexpected pit stop left Earnhardt in last place on the track. Off cycle with the rest of the field, he'd rise into the top 10 when everyone else pitted, and then fall deep in the field again when it was his time to hit pit road. The No. 88 team needed a break -- which it caught on Lap 58 when Timmy Hill stalled out, bringing out a caution that left Earnhardt in 14th and as the last car on the lead lap.

"Basically, we have the Nationwide race (left), starting 14th," the always-upbeat Letarte said over the radio. "First two runs were just practice."

Indeed, everything changed for Earnhardt after that. When Jeff Burton busted a transmission to bring out another caution, driver and crew chief discussed their options: come in and take two tires, or stay out. They agreed unanimously on the latter. "I think that's the chance to win," Letarte told Earnhardt. "Nobody's going to drive from 14th to first."

Afterward, Earnhardt admitted to being more concerned than he let on. "Yeah, a little bit," he said. "But it's still a long race. Steve's a good strategist, and we ended up all right. I think the car had good speed, and we finished about where we should have."

Suddenly, Earnhardt was restarting fourth in one of the most important Sprint Cup Series events of the year, surrounded by other drivers with differing pit strategies. But the team's plan was set up for the end, and after his final stop Earnhardt emerged 22nd and a lap down -- but behind a slew of other vehicles yet to come in.

"All right, we're done," Letarte said over the radio. "Let's see if we can make it from here."

They did, inching up the scoreboard one last time as one driver after another -- such as Carl Edwards, Paul Menard, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski -- conceded to the realities of fuel mileage and sacrificed track position for gas. Earnhardt's strategy got him as high as sixth, where he stagnated trying to chase down Matt Kenseth.

"Either running out of gas or had an engine problem those last two or three laps," Earnhardt called it. "? Car just quit running." But the resulting sixth-place finish, coming on the heels of last year's fourth-place result at the Brickyard, still gave him consecutive top-10s at Indianapolis for the first time in his career. Earnhardt also maintained his fifth-place standing in Sprint Cup points.

"I think it panned out like it probably should have," Letarte said. "It's the strategy to win the race, kind of. We were running (14th); when we went to that strategy, we ran sixth. I don't think we were going to drive to sixth. Nobody was going to drive to sixth today. ? I look up there and I think our strategy worked. The cars that beat us were faster than us, other than the 20 (car of Kenseth). We should have beat him."

They might have if not for that loose wheel to start the race, which is an uncommon occurrence.

"It's rare, but mistakes happen. For something to come loose that early in the race, it's unfortunate. Things like that are costly. But it's a long year. I've seen it before. We'll see it again, on other teams -- hopefully we've learned our lesson. But that's just part of it," Letarte said.

"We have a good group of guys," the crew chief added. "They do a great job. Stuff like this is unfortunate, but it's auto racing. It's mechanics. People make mistakes. Fortunately, you get really lucky when a mistake happens, and you get to bounce back from it. Hopefully you can learn from it, which I know we will. Off to Pocono."

Last time around at Pocono Raceway, the site of next weekend's event, Earnhardt finished third. But first, there will be the matter of mourning Randy Earnhardt, uncle to not only Dale Jr. but his sister Kelly Earnhardt Miller and brother Kerry, and a stalwart at DEI even after the organization shifted its racing operations over to Chip Ganassi's team.

"He kept things together," Earnhardt said of his uncle. "He was ? mainly in charge of just where every part and nut and bolt (were), being accountable for everything. And after the racing sort of left the race shop -- after I left and everything kind of went away -- he stuck around. He was loyal to Dad, and really looked after everything that was there, that was my father's, that would have been important to him as far as material things. Randy really looked after that. It's just tough. It's part of life and it's hard to get used to. I'm just glad his suffering's over with. He was having a really tough time, and I loved him dearly and will miss him a lot."

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