KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Imagine, if you can, riding around a race track at nearly 190 mph, eyeballing your competitors' suspension settings and wondering how you could replicate that configuration and make your car's package more competitive.
Welcome to Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s world.
-- DALE EARNHARDT JR.
The Hendrick Motorsports driver's solid season continued with a seventh-place finish in Sunday's STP 400, where Earnhardt said his car was "fun." The fact that he was never outside the top 10 in 267 high-speed, slip-sliding laps proved it -- despite that nagging little setup issue.
"For whatever reason, that last run we were really loose," said Earnhardt, who told crew chief Steve Letarte over their in-car radio that, 'they are kicking my [butt] getting in [to the corner].'
"When you look at all the guys I'm racing around, their track bars are on the ground and we're running ours about three inches higher, probably. We've just got to figure out a way to get that down and get the car to rotate [in the center of the corner] and get the rear grip in the car."
Those little shortcomings aside, the fact is the first eight races of Earnhardt's season have given him his best run with second-year crew chief Letarte and best overall start since 2008 -- his first season with Hendrick. That was also the last year he won a race.
Sunday, Earnhardt dropped a spot in the standings to his old buddy Martin Truex Jr., who jumped from fourth to second and knocked Earnhardt back into his former slot. Earnhardt's winless drought grew to 137 races, but neither that nor his organization's failure to win owner Rick Hendrick's 200th Cup Series victory could dampen Earnhardt's enthusiasm.
"The car was fun to drive and we've had a great weekend," said Earnhardt, who started seventh, only the third time this season he's seen the green flag in the top 10. "The day went really well [but] we never really cured our problems on the track. But we had a good car and it was a real consistent team, so we've got that going for us. We've just got to get a little bit more to get to where we can try to win some races. We are [close]."
Earnhardt said that goal involves more than Hendrick's looming, iconic landmark. And Earnhardt made a point to indicate there was no frustration involved on his part.
"Well, you want to win for Rick and you want to win for yourself and your team," Earnhardt said. "Everybody here needs a win for one reason or another. We're all working really hard. I'm not really focusing on [the 200th] or honing in on that too heavily."
As usual, Earnhardt's thinking big-picture.
"You've just got to think about what your car is doing and what you need to do to help your car and make your car faster, and the wins eventually take care of themselves," Earnhardt said. "We've just got to keep working and not really think about the big prize, but just think about the little things we need to work on every day."
Yet, Earnhardt also seems fixated on the vision of getting his rear kicked on corner entry, while watching showers of sparks trail out from behind his competitors' slicker-handling cars.
"I wish we knew [what we were missing]," Earnhardt said. "Getting that track bar down... Looking at everybody around me -- man, they're on the ground and we're running ours quite a bit higher. [So] when I need to step on the gas, the right rear [tire] is just not hanging on. So, it's really loose into the corner. Everybody around me can barrel into the corner pretty hard and I'm just not [able to].
"So, we'll work on it and try to see if we can get closer to what's fast and what's winning races."
Earnhardt finally dismissed the thought that more caution flags at Kansas might've helped their situation. There were only three in the race, one week after there were only two at Texas, another 1.5-mile speedway. The last 65 laps Sunday, when Earnhardt was particularly loose, were under green.
"Well, who knows -- we could have dialed it right out," Earnhardt said. "You just never know what would have happened. The green flag runs, when we had a good car, were helping us and helping us hold our track position."
Earnhardt's closing comments exemplified the "fun" he derives from utilizing his driving abilities in Kansas and everywhere else.
"So, I like long runs because that's when the drivers get to do some work," Earnhardt said. "Everybody can run about the same [speed] for 10 or 15 laps. But when you get a good, long green-flag run, everybody's cars start sliding around and you start to work on people."
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