Dale Earnhardt Jr. held the provisional pole until Sprint Cup qualifying was halfway through on Friday afternoon, thanks in part to an interesting strategy by crew chief Lance McGrew.
McGrew ordered the No. 88 team to focus solely on its qualifying setup during the first and only Cup practice today, which wouldn’t be unusual except that weather forecasters are calling for a complete washout of both Cup practices tomorrow.
That means McGrew would have to set up Earnhardt Jr.’s car for Sunday’s race based on the setups of the No. 88’s three teammates at Hendrick Motorsports rather than the feedback of the driver.
Why do that?
"You know, I don’t really know," Earnhardt Jr. said with a smile. "I don’t discuss that with Lance, it's really what he thinks we should do. It’s what he chose to do. I know it’s going to rain – or it could rain – so you’ll just have to ask him what his throught process was. Maybe you can get it out of him."
McGrew said there would be a simple solution if it rained: Just put in a setup somewhere between those of Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin, though he said Earnhardt Jr.’s style tilted toward Gordon’s a bit more.
"We’ve come a long way with our simulation programs and that kind of thing," McGrew said. "It’s pretty easy to predict where we need to be."
Earnhardt Jr. said last week’s disastrous qualifying effort at Fontana – in which he had brake problems – helped get the whole weekend off to a bad start. A better qualifying effort today may remedy that.
"We just qualified so poorly last week," he said. "Last week we were in race trim and we just tripped and struggled trying to get into qualifying trim before the end of practice and we got nothing done, nothing accomplished, and then we had the brake problems.
"It was just a cluster from the end of practice on, and we just wanted to avoid that."
McGrew said the team was still puzzled as to the axle problems Earnhardt Jr. experienced last week during the race. He said it was not believed to be an issue with the axle material, but rather that some axles were taking on too much heat.
But no one was quite sure why, he said.
So did he feel like the problem was fixed?
"Preliminarily, yes," McGrew said. "Is it 100 percent, do I feel really confident that we’re not gonna have any issues? No.
"It’s just going to take a little bit of time and some warm fuzzies before I feel really good about it."
Despite everything, Earnhardt Jr. said he still feels like the 88 team is in store for a good season.
"I feel like last week, we really didn’t get to show how much we’ve changed as a team," Earnhardt Jr. said, "but I think over the next several weeks we should be able to do that."