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Dale Earnhardt Jr. says he's "afraid to come across as a bit of a prick" to his team, which can sometimes cause a breakdown in communication about how the car is really handling.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is talkin' about practice.
Earnhardt Jr. channeled his inner Allen Iverson on Tuesday, telling reporters in Charlotte that poor practices were to blame for his team's struggles last weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where he ultimately finished 13th.
The driver mentioned the word "practice" a total of 14 times in just over 11 minutes because, as he said, "What resulted in our shitty day (on Sunday) started with how practice began."
According to the Hendrick Motorsports driver, here's how his weekend unfolded:
• The team started with the setup which helped Earnhardt Jr. get a fourth-place result in the July race at New Hampshire, but the group added "a bunch of ideas we thought would improve it," the driver said. The ideas didn't work at all.
• Because the car started off "very bad," Friday's practice session turned into a "cluster," he said. The team spent way too much time in race setup and only made one mock qualifying run before the practice ended. He qualified 14th for the race and was frustrated with how things were going.
• Saturday's practice showed some improvement, but Earnhardt Jr. felt the team's plan to fix the problems wasn't going to be enough. "I felt we stubbed our toe on Friday trying to practice the way we did, and it kind of bled into Saturday," he said. "... It was inevitable to me that the car was not going to be what we needed, and it wasn't."
• The car never turned through the middle of the corner like Earnhardt Jr. needed it to, and he ran near 20th for most of the day before rallying to finish 13th. That's not good enough to win the championship, and Earnhardt Jr. said his team collectively "stumbled and tripped all the way through" the race weekend. He included himself in that, because he wished he would have emphasized to his team how far off the car really was.
"We can do better than that, and we should and will," he said. "Whether we can do it enough to overcome the decifit we've put in front of us, I don't know."
Earnhardt Jr. is now 26 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson and in seventh place with eight races to go. It's not the way he wanted to start off the Chase, and he said he wouldn't "paint it up like it's all roses when it's not."
"I know what the situation is and I understand the reality of our position," he added.
But he also said there was time to recover and go on a streak to get back in championship contention. And if a comeback is to happen, Earnhardt Jr. said it would have to start with better practices.
Though the communication between Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Steve Letarte is great, there are times when both men can be too positive. The driver said neither one of them wants to piss the other one off, and so sometimes he doesn't push the issue because "I'm afraid to come across as a bit of a prick."
"I don't want to step on anybody's toes," Earnhardt Jr. said. "There's times in the car when I want to step up and go, 'Hey man, this is really a problem. We really need to fix this.'"
But his fear is Letarte is going to take it the wrong way. After all, the crew chief and engineers are likely already working on the problem, he said, so there's no point in being "pushy and shovey." There's a way to express his opinion about the car without going too far, he said.
"It's really a very small, petty issue to be talking about, but I think it's important," he said. "Me and Steve still have yet to learn with each other: When somebody needs to pick it up, how do you relay that to that person? How does he tell me to take something more seriously?"
Earnhardt Jr. said the team as a whole needs to do a better job of acknowledging its problems during practice and not just assuming they'll get fixed once the race starts.
For example: At New Hampshire, he said no driver is completely happy with how the car rolls through the center. And Earnhardt Jr. certainly wasn't. But instead of telling himself, "Maybe it's not as bad as I think it is; maybe that's just something I'm going to have to deal with," he said it was a "mistake to get that complacent about it."
Bad practices are not common for the No. 88 team. But when they do happen, Earnhardt Jr. said everyone needs to make a better effort to attack the problems with tenacity.
"If we can do that, then I can go into Sunday knowing that we've given ourselves a shot," he said, "and we typically have pretty good races when we do that."