"Something's broke," Dale Earnhardt Jr. shouted as his No. 88 car suddenly began to shake. Turns out, it wasn't a broken part, but a shredded left-front tire -- one of two Earnhardt suffered Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway, in a rain-delayed, day-to-night marathon that brought the season-opening streak enjoyed by NASCAR's most popular driver to an abrupt end.
Bidding to tie Richard Petty's NASCAR record of four top-two finishes to open the season, Earnhardt never really got the chance. Despite a strong car early, the tire issues relegated Earnhardt to a 24th-place finish, four laps behind race winner Carl Edwards. It was the first bobble of the 2014 campaign for the Daytona 500 winner, who had finished second at Phoenix and Las Vegas and entered Bristol as the points leader in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
But under a revamped Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup format in which Earnhardt's Daytona victory likely guarantees him a berth, the disappointment over the finish was hardly what it might have been.
"As long as they're telling the truth about if you win, you're in, you ain't worried about it," he said in the garage area as rain began to fall once again. "You ain't worried about it -- you either win, or you don't win. Second (through) last doesn't really matter. If you don't win, you just go home and try again."
Earnhardt's team will certainly go home and investigate what caused two tires to get chewed up. His Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson had the tread come off a tire before the race was interrupted by a three-hour rain delay, leaving the six-time champion two laps down at the red flag and contributing to a 19th-place result. But Johnson lost a right-front, and according to Goodyear, crew chief Chad Knaus' decision to take only lefts under a Lap 50 competition caution created a high-wear situation on a green track washed free of rubber by rain.
Complicating the situation was the fact that the No. 88 car seemed to return to its original form late in the race.
"It's frustrating," said Steve Letarte, Earnhardt's crew chief. "I've had cars that eat tires before in my career, but they normally eat them all day. So I don't know how this one miraculously got better. Everybody has the same opportunity when they come to the race track. We've run well for three weeks, and we just couldn't put together a good finish tonight."
Earnhardt said he couldn't detect the root issue from the driver's seat -- all he knew was, the car was shaking up a storm. "Tires were just falling apart on the damn thing for a while. So I don't know what else we could have done," he said.
"It ran fine the first part of the race, so it ain't the green track, and all that (stuff). So we'll just take it home, make sure nothing's changed in the car. Otherwise, I don't know what happed there. Just tore two left-front tires up, and it won't run at all when that left-front tire came down to the cords."
With the finish, Earnhardt fell to second in the Sprint Cup standings, 10 points behind new leader Brad Keselowski. But he remains off to one of the best starts of his career, and having a race victory already in his pocket certainly mitigated the sting felt Sunday night.
"It definitely helps. We're just shooting for wins," Letarte said. "I don't think we had a winning car before that, but you never know. Nobody thought the 99 (team of Edwards) had a winning car, and they ended up winning. We just want to be in it and have an opportunity, and we just didn't get to stay in it all day."
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