Racing with a heavy heart, Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished sixth Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Hours before the Brickyard 400, Earnhardt learned of the passing of his uncle Randy Earnhardt, who succumbed to cancer at the age of 60. Randy was the brother of Earnhardt‘s late father, Dale Earnhardt.
"It was really tough," Earnhardt said afterward. "He helped me through a lot of challenges when I was trying to become a race car driver.
"It is just very, very sad, but I am glad his suffering is over with. He is going to be missed. He was awesome, such an awesome guy ... It is tough. It is part of life, and it is hard to get used to. I am just glad his suffering is over with; he was having a real hard time. I loved him dearly, and will miss him a lot."
Earnhardt's already difficult day was compounded when shortly after the green flag waved, his Chevrolet began shaking violently due to a loose wheel. While there was some hesitation on whether to pit and forfeit valuable track position, crew chief Steve Letarte saw no other option and called his driver to pit road on Lap 13. After all, as Earnhardt said, you can't risk having a wheel come off at 200 mph.
The decision dropped him to 43rd and cost Earnhardt a lap to the field. And on a track like Indianapolis where passing is difficult and yellow flags are few, it put the No. 88 team at a noticeable disadvantage.
Off sequence and in scramble mode to get back on the same lap as the leaders, Letarte utilized various pit strategies to get his driver back in contention. That approach, along with the aid of some timely yellow flags, eventually put Earnhardt back on the lead lap.
Eventually, Earnhardt would race his way into the top 10. He may have finished higher were it not for a miss in his engine in the latter stages.
"We changed our strategy and made it work," Earnhardt said. "The car had good speed. Right at the end, we were either running out of gas, or had a little bit of an engine problem the last two or three laps. I almost lost another spot. But the car just quit running at the end. I don't know if it was out of fuel or what."
With the finish, Earnhardt maintained fifth in the standings, and is a comfortable 58 points ahead of the cutoff to qualify for the Chase.