By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
JOLIET, Ill. - Dale Earnhardt Jr. blamed himself for having to start from the rear of the field in Sunday's Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway, but an eighth-place finish was enough to raise his spirits - at least somewhat.
Earnhardt claimed the fourth starting position in time trials but over-revved his engine after his qualifying lap - a freak occurrence.
"We ran a qualifying lap, and when you cross the finish line you bump it out of gear, which is what I've done every time I've run a qualifying lap, however many of those I've ran," Earnhardt explained. "In practicing mock runs, I bumped it out of gear and it went in third and over-(revved) the engine way over.
"The valves and the piston had a little party, and they all ended up with a hangover."
Because his team changed engines, Earnhardt had to drop to the rear for the start of Sunday's race, the first in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
With a stout car in the early going and a couple of two-tire calls, Earnhardt advanced through the field, ultimately finish eighth. If he's to be a contender for the championship, however, Earnhardt knows he must do better.
"To win the championship, we're going to have to turn days like that, those kind of mistakes, around into wins and top threes," Earnhardt said. "We need to be in the media center (as a top-three finisher) after all these races as much as possible.
"Eighth is all right, but I know (race winner) Brad (Keselowski) is going to run well, and the No. 48 (race runner-up Jimmie Johnson) is obviously going to be tough. You can't run eighth every week and win the championship."
FUEL SHORTAGE COSTS HAMLIN
Denny Hamlin, the top seed entering this year's Chase, dropped from the top spot in the standings after running out of fuel late in Sunday's race.
After spending most of the afternoon in the top five, Hamlin coasted across the finish line in 16th place and fell into a tie for fourth in the Chase standings, 15 points behind Keselowski.
"We didn't get it all the way full on the last stop," Hamlin said after the race. "(Crew chief) Darian (Grubb) said we made an adjustment instead of putting (a full complement of) fuel in the car-and you have to have fuel to finish."
Knowing he was short, Hamlin tired to conserve fuel during the final green-flag run.
"Bad thing is, I felt like we could have run to third right there," Hamlin said. "I just was having to run so slow to keep from running out of fuel, and we still ran out."
Though the first Chase race brought a miscue, Hamlin feels he's still in the mix for the title.
"You can't have self-induced problems, and this isn't luck or anything like that," Hamlin said. "This was just us making a big mistake with our fuel again. It's tough, but we're strong enough and fast enough this Chase that we can make up 15 points easily."
PENALTY, THOUGH RESCINDED, HURTS ALMIROLA
Front row starter Aric Almirola had a top-five run going at Chicagoland, until NASCAR penalized him for a tire violation during his first green-flag pit stop.
Almirola lost a lap serving a pass-through penalty, but NASCAR reviewed the infraction, determined a penalty wasn't warranted and allowed Almirola to regain his lap. Only one problem: NASCAR couldn't restore Almirola to the fourth-place position he occupied before the penalty.
Instead, after a round of pit stops under caution on Lap 67, the driver of the No. 43 Ford restarted outside the top 20 and wasn't a factor thereafter. In his first run with crew chief Todd Parrott, after an intra-team swap, Almirola finished 17th.
"That was very bizarre," Almirola said of the rescinded penalty. "They pretty much ruined our day. It was extremely tough to pass today. Track position was everything."
Almirola, at least, had speed in race trim to match his second-place qualifying effort.
"All in all, it was a good day, though," Almirola said. "I'm proud of everyone. Todd Parrott and all the guys did a great job. Our car was so fast at the beginning of the race, and we ran like we should have.
"I was proud of that."