RICHMOND, Va. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been creeping up on his first Sprint Cup Series win in four seasons, and he might have taken a giant step Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway.
The best part, both crew chief Steve Letarte and Earnhardt said, was that the team finished better, second to Kyle Busch in the Capital City 400, than what the car should have -- even if Earnhardt didn't get Hendrick Motorsports' 200th Cup victory.
Earnhardt Jr. at Hendrick
Year Start Finish 2012 10 2 2011 (fall) 27 16 2011 (spring) 24 19 2010 (fall) 9 34 2010 (spring) 25 32 2009 (fall) 15 21 2009 (spring) 25 27 2008 (fall) 4 4 2008 (spring) 22 15
"I feel that we've consistently done that at a few places this year," Letarte said. "Last week [at Kansas], we had a little better car than we finished, so I was disappointed to run seventh. But with testing the way it is now [there is no testing at tracks that play host to NASCAR events], the only way to do it is bring it to the track and find out [if it works]."
More often than not this season, that's the way it has happened, as Earnhardt, Letarte and company have recorded seven top-10 finishes in nine starts.
"I think that's the key," Letarte said. "Of course, every week you want to bring a winning car [to the track], but it's hard because there are a lot of good teams in the garage. So you want to feel, as a race team, that you performed above the level of the car that you had. This week we probably had a fifth-place car and ran second, so what goes around comes around."
And that was with a brake package that Earnhardt said was his most limiting factor all night, not just after he scooted around Tony Stewart on the final restart with nine laps left only to be unable to run down Busch.
Brakes had something to do with it. Leave it to Earnhardt to try to take the blame.
"I got them talked into going to a different master cylinder for a little softer pedal at Martinsville," Earnhardt said. "And then we brought it here, and you are on the brake pedal so far down in the corner that it just cooked the front [brakes] and I'd get a real soft pedal pretty quick. I had a great [last] restart, and I ran really great for one lap and the pedal went back to the floor -- I just had to pump it up all the way down the straightaway and I didn't have any front brakes getting into the corner so I couldn't get in real hard [because] it would just get loose locking the rears up."
Earnhardt said for all intents and purposes, Busch might have been untouchable.
"Even with the brakes working, I think [Busch] was just a little bit better than us all night. But I want to thank my team; they had great stops and we gained a lot of spots on pit road. And we had a great race car. All the people at Hendrick, they do a great job, man. It's just been fun this year.
"If the car was good, I could have dealt with the brake problems. If the car was faster than [Busch] we would have got there to him and maybe we'd have raced for it. I just chose a different master cylinder at Martinsville and I shouldn't have brought it here."
Not so fast, said Letarte, who engineered a car fast enough for Earnhardt to score his seventh second-place finish since he last won, in June 2008 at Michigan, 138 races ago.
"Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a very polite guy," Letarte said. "And he likes to take the credit for when things go wrong because he's a leader and he has big shoulders and he likes to help the team out. But it's something we decided as a team. We do everything as a team -- we win as a team, lose as a team -- and [that brake package] was in this car because we're trying to be better. We're not just trying to be OK, we're trying to be great."
Earnhardt explained what he was dealing with as he raced in the top 15 positions all night.
"I couldn't get enough front brake in it at the end to run as hard as I wanted to, and we just had hurt the balance a little bit on entry," Earnhardt said. "But I'm really happy to come home with second. We were running about fifth all night and just got lucky on that [last] restart to be on the inside and get a couple spots."
Earnhardt's best season opening since 2008 continued as he moved to second in the standings, five points behind Greg Biffle.
"I think we can feel great," Letarte said. "I think we have a winning race team, and it's time to prove it. It's great to feel that way, but at some point you have to stand in Victory Lane, and I think that we have the group that can do it."
Saturday night's finish was Earnhardt's first top 10 in Richmond since 2008.
"It's good [because] this is a place ... last fall was probably the most stressful race, at least of my career," Letarte said of their 16th-place finish. "We've been good here but not great, not even a top-10 car, probably a top-15 car. So it was nice to come here [and run better]."
But Letarte is nothing if not a realist.
"The race definitely fell our way," Letarte said. "But we had a good enough car to recover from getting blocked-in on pit road once, so it was a good night. It was a good, solid effort with good pit stops. The driver did a great job, and I thought the guys prepared the car well [and] it was overall a good, solid night."
Earnhardt's race wasn't as good as his last outing at Kansas, where he never was scored outside the top 10. At Richmond, Earnhardt started 10th and never fell below 14th, though when he was blocked-in by Stephen Leicht on a pit stop at lap 204, he was running 15th immediately afterward. Earnhardt had been running sixth when that green-flag pit cycle began.
Earnhardt definitely feels his day is coming.
"Our team did a good job on pit road," Earnhardt said. "We're just trying to click away some good runs. We want to win a race or two here and there. If we keep running up front, that will happen."
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