KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- An ill-timed caution thwarted Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s run at Kansas Speedway, turning a potential top-five finish into a battle to race his way back into contention.
But time ran out and the Hendrick Motorsports driver finished 16th in his first start at the 1.5-mile track where he suffered a concussion during testing last August that eventually sidelined him for two races.
Third on lap 200 of the 267-lap race, Earnhardt Jr. was one of a handful of drivers that had just pitted when the caution flag appeared for debris in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race.
"We didn't need that caution," a concerned crew chief Steve Letarte told his driver via radio.
After a bit of initial confusion about who would get the free pass (awarded to the first car one lap down), NASCAR officials awarded the spot to Ricky Stenhouse Jr., meaning Earnhardt Jr. was one of several cars one lap down and taking the "wave around."
Unable to pit without losing any additional track position, Earnhardt Jr. restarted the race in the 21st position.
"I was real worried," he said. "I was a lap down. I just had an idea there that we was in big trouble and were going to have a hard time finishing as well as we were running.
"We were the 'lucky dog' because we were ahead of the No. 17 (Stenhouse), a lap down; but NASCAR has a way of scoring it and they scored it the way they scored it. That's the rule. It's not a real big deal.
"If we were the 'lucky dog,' we would have been able to have the advantage of coming down pit road and work on the car a little bit and take some tires. But we weren't."
Mired in the middle of traffic, Earnhardt Jr. was able to pick up several positions in the closing laps, but with no more cautions falling and track position paramount, his fate was sealed.
Still, the performance of the team and the speed in the car was welcome, coming on the heels of two finishes outside the top 20 that had seen Earnhardt Jr. fall from the points lead to sixth in the standings.
"We've ran good in all of them," he said. "We've had poor luck; you can't do much about that.
"We'll just have to keep working. But the cars are fast. We know we can run well. I'm really happy about how the cars have been driving and the work we've been doing. I'm extremely happy with the engines today. The power in the car was just incredible."
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