NASCAR Sonoma 2014: Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Finishing 3rd is like a win

Sarah Glenn

Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished third Sunday at Sonoma, a track where he has long struggled.

With an open disdain for Sonoma Raceway, one of two road courses on the Sprint Cup schedule, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has joked about wanting to blow up the track located in Northern California's wine country.

It's a frustration stemming from Earnhardt never having finished in the top 10 in 14 previous starts at Sonoma. And having already secured a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Earnhardt skipped testing electing to approach Sonoma with a "wing it" attitude and instead rely on his Hendrick Motorsport teammates.

"Aside from holding a trophy, this is like a win for us."-Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The outcome: Earnhardt finished third in Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350. His previous best Sonoma finish was in 11th.

"Aside from holding a trophy, this is like a win for us," Earnhardt said. "We came in here and knew we had a good car throughout practice, and I've been in the top 10 in a lot of these races with two or three laps to go, but we've just never been able to finish.

"Whatever the guys learned throughout testing and trying to prepare for this race really, I think, helped out the whole organization. All the cars were real quick today."

The day wasn't without incident for Earnhardt, who was the center of a pair of separate wrecks involving Matt Kenseth and AJ Allmendinger.

Running alongside Kenseth, Earnhardt hopped the curb and bounced into Kenseth, who spun viciously into a tire barrier. The contact ripped away the nose of Kenseth's car. He was uninjured.

"I was racing him a little hard there coming out of Turn 7," Earnhardt said. "He probably had the preferred line and I probably should have yielded to him, but I thought I was a little bit faster than him and didn't want to be stuck behind him. I straddled a curb, and it just lost my car in the air right into his car. I hope he's not too sore today."

Said Kenseth: "I knew he was on my right side. On the restart we were side-by-side and I got him going into (Turn) 7 and left him plenty of room when we were racing side-by-side. He tapped me on my right rear and wrecked me. I don't know if he got out of the groove with his car -- I don't really know what happened and it doesn't matter at this point. Unfortunately it ended our day."

Earnhardt found himself immersed in more trouble when he and Allmendinger bumped exiting Turn 11. Allmendinger, who led a race-high 35 laps, then proceeded to hit the inside wall incurring severe damage.

Though he apologized, Earnhardt thought the contact with Allmendinger was incidental and merely a byproduct of the racing associated on Sonoma's narrow track.

"We got tangled up with (Allmendinger) somehow," Earnhardt said. "He wheel-hopped my left rear tire and that spun him out.

"I thought I gave him enough room on the outside. ... I don't know how bad it was for him, but I had just got around him and we got down into that corner and I ran low protecting my line, he shot to the outside and that's his prerogative. But I thought I gave him enough room. I didn't think I ran him in the fence."

Despite the challenges Earnhardt was a consistent presence in the top 10 Sunday. He credited crew chief Steve Letarte for a strategy to pit for fresh tires regularly. Earnhardt stopped on five occasions, whereas most teams pitted between two or three times.

Not having to be concerned with track position or where he finished came from Earnhardt owning two victories in 2014. And with entry into the Chase all but assured, Letarte could afford to gamble without consequence.

"We figured that our best opportunity to run well here would be to pit and get newer tires more often than everybody else," Earnhardt said. "So having the two wins in the season, it allowed us to really kind of gamble and go ahead and get back there in the mess and have newer tires, and it paid off. We were able to drive up through there."

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