Sprint Cup driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. climbs out of his car after qualifying at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Saturday. (AP Photo)
INDIANAPOLIS — It was a difficult day for Dale Earnhardt Jr. — on and off the track.
His uncle, Randy Earnhardt, died Sunday morning. Randy was important to Dale in his early racing days and played a role in Dale Earnhardt Inc., which was founded by Dale Sr. and his wife, Teresa, and existed from 1980 to 2009.
Dale Jr., who drove for DEI, respected Randy both for his work in racing and his dedication to the family.
“It is just very, very sad, but I am glad his suffering is over with,” Dale Jr. said. “He is going to be missed. He was awesome, such an awesome guy.”
Later, during the Brickyard 400, a loose wheel forced Junior into the pits on the 12th lap, and he fell back to last place before rallying to finish sixth. Crew chief Steve Letarte was disappointed that something simple made it unlikely that his driver would win.
“I would say looking at it right now, it just wasn’t tight,” Letarte said. “We have a good group of guys. They do a great job. Stuff like this is unfortunate, but it’s auto racing. It’s mechanics. People make mistakes.”
Earnhardt said he put his confidence in Letarte and just kept driving.
“We had to change the strategy to get an opportunity to get back up and run,” Earnhardt said. “Steve is a great strategist on pit road. I was pretty calm. I knew we could do something to get it right.”
The team adjusted and Earnhardt climbed quickly. He was in last place at lap 20, but up to 13th by lap 30. He was in third place on lap 120.
“I thought we had the third-best car at times, the fifth-, sixth-best car at times,” Letarte said. “I think our strategy worked, and I think the cars that beat us were faster than us, other than the 20 (Matt Kenseth).”
Other than the early mishap, Earnhardt said there were few things he would have changed.
“We were a little tight off the wall into the center. That cost us a spot, I think, at the end of the race,” he said. “All in all, I had good speed. Real happy with the way the car ran.”
Letarte said the team will learn from the situation and move forward to next Sunday’s race at Pocono.
“I mean, it’s rare, but mistakes happen,” he said. “It’s unfortunate. Things like that are costly, but it’s a long year. We’ve seen it before, we’ll see it again.”
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