It lacked the drama and excitement generated at Charlotte, but Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s second place at Kansas illustrates why his 2011 season has been a 180-degree turnaround from 2010. At Charlotte, Earnhardt ran out of gas in the last corner of the last lap and finished seventh. At Kansas, he saved enough fuel to finish and was rewarded with second. With crew chief Steve Letarte in his first season calling the shots, the No. 88 team is finding ways to score those valuable points.
Thirteen races into the Sprint Cup season and 13 to go until the Chase, Earnhardt is third in the points. Kansas was Earnhardt's third top-5, equaling his total from last year, and seventh top-10, one short of 2010. Earnhardt's morale is high.
"Definitely this year, I've run some really good cars and I've had some real good times racing and being in those cars," Earnhardt said. "I just enjoy competing where I feel like I should be able to compete. I have an opinion, personally, about what kind of talent I've got and where I should be running in the races. When I'm close to that or doing that or matching that then I get happy and I feel content and satisfied, and obviously this year has been a better year for me.
"It could be even better and, hopefully, we'll get to that next level, but for the most part, definitely having fun. Definitely having more fun. When the race weekend sneaks up on you week after week after week, you're not so upset about it. Sitting at home is pretty fun, but now when Thursday and Friday rides around, creeps up on you out of nowhere, you're not disappointed about it, you're like, 'All right man, let's go to the next one and let's see what we can do. Let's see if we can go out there and make some more good things happen."
Earnhardt and Letarte made good things happen at Kansas, overcoming a spin at the halfway point by making it to the finish on one more pit stop. He had to balance saving fuel with running hard. It also takes having the car, and the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet was up to the task.
"Starting where we did , it just wasn't easy," Earnhardt said. "We finally got to right outside that top-10 and was looking good for the last 100 laps. And I went to searching for more speed and busted my butt up there on [Turns] 3 and 4. And tossed us in all the spots we worked for all day.
"But it also gave Steve the chance to play the strategy game where you gotta ... when that caution came out that we came and got fuel. We put ourselves in a one-stop scenario where everybody else didn't pit. They can't give up the track position because it's so hard to pass. So they stayed out there knowing they'd have to come down to pit road twice. And that was the game that we took, and the race could have had a caution and changed everybody's strategy, but it worked out for us and right to the end. We had a good car. We just didn't have a second-place car, not at all, but we had a top-10 car."
Earnhardt has discovered that good fortune smiles on you when there's speed in the car.
"We just keep doing," he explained. "We've had some runs where we drove ourselves into the positions where we finished. We finished well by running well and by getting lucky. And that's what championship teams do. And you always scratch your head when Jimmie Johnson and them guys look like they're out of it and next thing you turn around at the end of the race and they're right there in the middle of it. And you're like, 'How in the world?' So, now I guess I'm on that side of the fence. I see some of it and I see why it happens.
"But it's just rolling the dice, man, that's what it was. You know how the dice is, sometimes it works for you and sometimes it don't."
The No. 88 team's fuel calculation was right on the money.
"We got within 10 to go and [Letarte] said, 'Back it down, back it down.'"
Earnhardt wanted to overtake winner Brad Keselowski. Letarte said save fuel.
"I can catch the 2, he's real slow," Earnhardt told Letarte on the radio.
"And he's like, 'Back it down, back it down, back it up to the 11[Denny Hamlin].' What? I thought we was good [to the end]. He said, 'No, we're going to run out right at the flag stand.' And it did. The gauge was red. It ran out the back of the straightaway. I was backing it down, doing what he said."
Earnhardt thought he was racing Hamlin for a victory, which would have been his first in 106 races.
"I was told that that was the race for the win," Earnhardt said. "And I genuinely believe what Steve was telling me, because I didn't think the 2 would make it. But he saved a lot of gas. He did a great job. I was faster than Denny the last 100 laps of the race. There was a stretch where we were running, I could tell I was running him down. I'm sitting there running behind the 9 [Marcos Ambrose], the 43 [A.J. Allmendinger] and all those guys pretty much all day long, but through a tire run I'd come off [Turn] 2 and look in the corner and I'd start seeing guys up in the top-15, top-10 that I was running down.
"I would see more and more of them as the run went on. So, we had a great car. And it was fun racing Denny. I don't get to race him too much."
Qualifying for Earnhardt has been a problem. He was on the pole at Daytona, started third at Dover and fourth at Talladega. In the other 10 races, he's been 22nd or worse. It's the single area that can make him a bigger threat to win races.
"We need to work on qualifying to not make the day so long and so hard on us," Earnhardt explained. "We need to start in the top-10, so we ain't gotta work the first three quarters of the race trying to get within sight of it. That's about it.
"Every time I always thought I could do better or the problem was me. We'll go down the road somewhere, flip the switch on the car, do something to the car that gives you what you need, and you're like damn, it wasn't me. But I qualified good last year some, which we've been terrible this year. We just gotta figure out what we need to do. It can't be that hard."
Letarte was shifted by team owner Rick Hendrick last winter from a tenure with Jeff Gordon that began with 10 races remaining in 2005.
"Me and him get along great," Earnhardt said. "He's real smart with the cars. He's not afraid to try what he sees other people doing. And he's just sharp. We all could do better and be better at our job. But right now it's working out. We're getting along great. We're running good. Hopefully, we can keep it up. I'm not going to do anything to mess it up. I'm going to try hard to stay on the positive side and work hard right along with him, give him everything he needs."
Earnhardt will take a positive mental outlook to Pocono this weekend, where he's never won and has five top-5s and a 17.9 average finish in 22 starts. A good outlook is nice to have, but a fast No. 88 would be better.