Saturday Charlotte Notebook

Dale Earnhardt Jr. regrets not pegging "fun meter" this year

CONCORD, N.C. - Make no mistake. Dale Earnhardt Jr. took issue with the suggestion that missing the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff this year has allowed the driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet to compete under less pressure and have more fun in his final races as full-time driver.

Earnhardt's "fun meter" says something completely different.

"I think that the fans would be having more fun if we were racing for the championship and then I would be having more fun interacting with them in that manner and their excitement of it," Earnhardt said on Friday after opening practice at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "So I think it's a little bittersweet for me and the fans and our supporters with the situation we're in. I only really have fun when we run well.

"It's been a difficult year from a fun meter standpoint. We haven't really moved the needle too much this year. This past couple of weekends, especially at Dover and Richmond, we've seen some improvements and had fun driving the car and been quick. And I think we were good off the truck today. I thought we had something to build on."

Earnhardt's optimism quickly dissipated when he hit the Turn 4 wall in the first five minutes of practice. The No. 88 team rolled out a backup car, and Earnhardt ran two laps in that Chevy before the end of the 85-minute session.

"I don't really know how to compare the backup car to the primary," Earnhardt said after the abbreviated run. "And it doesn't have all the bells and whistles, so it might not be quite as good as I was hoping, I guess, initially when we rolled it off the truck today.

"But, that's it. I enjoy running well. When I don't run well, I don't know that anybody enjoys that. And it's hard to make light of it or to smile through it. And I think the fans would have more fun, and in turn, me having more fun if we were in the thick of the championship battle."

Later that evening, Earnhardt qualified 23rd for Sunday's Bank of America 500.

The needle on the fun meter didn't move.


Erik Jones was the designated driver for TV exhibition runs at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and just before 10 a.m. Saturday morning, Jones made a rookie mistake in the NBC Sports show car.
Coming off Turn 4 and into the tri-oval at the 1.5-mile track, Jones guided the car up to the outside wall, unaware that the crossover steps leading down from a gate just before the start / finish line were still in place. You can guess the rest. The right front of the car hit the metal stairs and demolished them. Jones never saw the steps.

"It definitely was a surprise," Jones said after the NASCAR XFINITY Series drivers' meeting. "I knew I'd hit something, obviously, but had no idea what it was or that it was as big as it was. I would have never guessed it was some stairs. It was definitely a weird way to start the day."

Saturday may have been weird, but Friday was downright disappointing for the driver for the No. 77 Furniture Row Racing Toyota. Jones' car didn't pass inspection in time to make a qualifying run for Sunday's Bank of America 500. Accordingly, he'll start 38th.


Ricky Stenhouse Jr. survived the Round of 16 in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff by the thinnest of margins-he grabbed seven stage points at Dover to edge Ryan Newman by two points for the final berth in the Round of 12.

Conventional wisdom says Stenhouse must win next Sunday at Talladega to make it to the Round of 8, and that's not an unreasonable supposition. After all, the driver of the No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford has won the two most recent events at restrictor-plate tracks. But don't tell Stenhouse he can't advance on points. After all, crew chief Brian Pattie did the math, and it was Pattie who kept Stenhouse on the track at Dover to set up the risk/reward play for the decisive stage points.

"I'd love to do it by winning Talladega, but I think, realistically, you've got to plan on points," Stenhouse said. "That's our mind-set for now. If we took the races - the first Charlotte, the first Kansas and obviously the first Talladega - not counting the win to advance us, but if you take those points, we would have sat sixth out of the drivers that are left.

"So Pattie kind of showed me that this week, that, if we can get back to doing what we were capable of earlier in the season, that we can do it on points as well. That's going take a lot of effort. We're not there right now, but as the weekend went last time we were here for the 600, we got a little bit better until we ran at night. I thought we were a little bit off, but our mind-set is points right now, and we'll see how that changes after Charlotte."

Though Stenhouse was the last driver to qualify for the Round of 12, he's seeded eighth to start the round, thanks to 10 playoff points earned for his wins at Talladega and Daytona.

--- NASCAR Wire Service ---