Earnhardt has high hopes for Indy
INDIANAPOLIS -- This old place has gotten under Earnhardt family skin, stirred a restlessness in the Earnhardts, ever since NASCAR first turned wheels on Indianapolis Motor Speedway, in 1992.
"When they first came here to test, he had to be the first guy out on the racetrack," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Saturday of his father. "There was a lot of competition between him and Rusty [Wallace] to get on the track first because of the photo opportunities."
Cars were sent out numerically, so Wallace, in No. 2, was first onto the track, but Earnhardt, in No. 3, passed him and became the first NASCAR driver to cross the yard of bricks at the start/finish line.
To this day, Junior's struggle here -- he has but two top-10 finishes to show for 12 starts -- is mainly because "I'm just not a patient driver," he said. "So I get a little frustrated and end up overdriving my car."
Jeff Gordon didn't even know the elder Earnhardt well enough to get picked on by him going into the first Brickyard 400 in 1994, "but everyone knew how bad Dale wanted it," Gordon recalled. "He made it very clear to the media. That got spread throughout the garage. He knew how special this race was -- that inaugural race. He knew if you're going to win a race, just pick one, that's the one you wanted to win."
"He expected to come here and win the first [NASCAR] race at this track," Earnhardt Jr. said.
But the then-kid Gordon won that first one, and, for the next year, winning here "was Dale's mission," Gordon said. "He was seriously on a mission. And it showed in '95 with the result."
Afterward, The Intimidator proclaimed himself "the first man ever to win the Brickyard 400" on the TV talk show circuit. "Wonder Boy [his nickname for young Gordon] won the first one."
Winning here was crucial to Big E "because he knew he was on the back side of his career," Earnhardt said. "He certainly wasn't staring at 15 more years and knew the opportunities would be limited coming here once a year."
Junior hasn't been in such a hurry, but Sunday (1 p.m. ET, ESPN) will make his 13th try in this race.
This time, though, "We're coming in here with high expectations," he said Saturday, "coming off what has been one of my best years in my career." He is second in points with one win, and the consistency the No. 88 team has shown this season just might translate into a better run here, he figures.
Earnhardt was only 15th fastest in Saturday's qualifying, but he didn't expect much better.
"When we ended practice, we were pretty happy with how the car was showing speed," he said. "For some reason, in qualifying trim, we didn't put down any good laps but I think the car's got some good speed in race trim."
His own patience is what he questions.
"I think the reason I struggle here is because it's one groove," Earnhardt said of the flat, 2.5-mile rectangle built in 1909. "Following people around the racetrack, not being able to get to their bumper because of the aero push -- I don't have a lot of patience for that. I like a racetrack where I can change my line.
I think the reason I struggle here is because it's one groove. Following people around the racetrack, not being able to get to their bumper because of the aero push -- I don't have a lot of patience for that.” -- Dale Earnhardt Jr.
"You don't have but one choice, really, to run through the corner here," he continued. "You don't have a top groove. You can't make a bigger arc into the corner or change how you exit. Everybody has that same limitation. You sort of snake around the racetrack with the challenge of the aero push."
At the wider, higher-banked tracks more common to NASCAR, "When I get stuck behind somebody because it's tight, I can move around. I can get creative and do things that might help and might not, but in my mind I feel like I've got more freedom.
"And that's not a knock on the track," he said of the place he reveres as much as his father did. "Some drivers are really, really smooth, really, really patient."
The prime example is Gordon, who'll be going for a record fifth win at the Brickyard on Sunday.
As for Earnhardt, well, "I'm a bit more brash in how I drive a car," he admitted.
And yet, even with a best-ever finish here of sixth, "I don't really feel as frustrated about my performance here as one might think," Earnhardt said. "I remember some cars that I've had here that were pretty good. I thought we had a good car last year, and we got a bunch of grass on the grille and had to come in and lost a lot of track position and just fought all day long to get that back. And then Juan [Pablo Montoya] hit the fence in front of us and decided to rage-quit the race and ran into the side of my car going into the pit lane.
"It was a little bit of a rough day, but I thought we had good speed
"I don't come here thinking, 'I've never been able to keep my finger on this place,'" Earnhardt continued. "I feel like I know how to get around here. I'm just looking for the right balance in the car, and just putting together a good race.
"That's something we've been able to do this year," he said. "Completing races and putting together full events -- not having a good first half [of a race] and then disappearing. We've been able to finish races and do well, even when we haven't had the best car. So I hope we can continue that here."