Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn't known as a stellar qualifier, so a fourth-place starting spot for Sunday's NASCAR Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway was going to be great for the No. 88 team.
But as Earnhardt Jr. crossed the finish line at the end of his qualifying lap, he accidentally over-revved his engine while knocking it out of gear (which most drivers do when they finish qualifying) and bent a valve, which necessitated a motor change on Saturday afternoon.
NASCAR rules will now require Earnhardt Jr. to start at the rear of the field instead of in fourth place when the green flag waves on Sunday.
"We go across the finish line after our laps are over with and we bump it out of gear," Earnhardt Jr. said outside his hauler on Saturday. "Do it a million times. Do it every (week) for 10 years. It slipped into third gear and over-revved it just for a split second."
That resulted in the bent valve, he said, which didn't destroy anything but wasn't worth chancing a blown engine during the race.
"We're not too worried," Earnhardt Jr. said, still appearing upbeat. "We feel like we've got real good car. Had a good car in practice yesterday, real happy with the way I qualified."
Crew chief Steve Letarte said the team was not "super concerned." Chicagoland is a track where teams usually have multiple pit strategies and there will be opportunities to get back to the front that way.
Similarly, Earnhardt Jr. said the bad starting spot "gives us options" – especially if cautions fall early and he can pit for fuel and tires while other cars try to keep their track position. Plus, he said, the good pit stall earned via qualifying will also have benefits.
"It's a long race," he said. "I think the car is good enough. It's definitely not the way we wanted it to go. If the car wasn't very good, I think we'd be really worried right now, but I think the car is pretty good."