It wasn’t the most straightforward night, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. had an enjoyable, eventful and fruitful South Carolina 400 on Saturday at Florence Motor Speedway.
The driver of the JR Motorsports No. 3 finished the night in eighth but had a chance to contend for a top-five against drivers who have run these cars all year, which is about where he says he needs to be at this stage of his career.
There are things for him to work on, but he is enjoying every opportunity to drive a Late Model Stock and is already thinking of ways to be better in his next appearance.
“It’s a good time out there,” Earnhardt said after the race. “Fun race, qualified like junk and got to get better, start to learn. I think if you had dropped us anywhere inside the top-five, we probably could have finished there once everyone decided to really give it everything at the end.”
Earnhardt started 28th, something he predicted would happen, but methodically worked his way through the field by the end of the night and gained a lane on each restart.
These cars are hard to pass with and the South Carolina 400 is such a thinking driver’s race given the tire conservation element.
“We all had about the same tire left and there wasn’t much you could do,” he added. “You weren’t just going to drive by someone inside the top-eight but it was fun.
“Some guys were running the top, some on the bottom, and what a great race track. You know, just a lot of different grooves. I know some guys don’t love the tire saving part, but honestly man, I ran 85 percent at a minimum tonight. We were running pretty hard. I don’t think I could have run faster if I tried harder.
“It’s kind of a chess match. You don’t know if you’re saving enough, and you don’t know if you’re saving more or less than the next guy and it’s kind of fun.”
For the second year in a row, Earnhardt was involved in some incidents, and one this year that sent Josh Dickens upside. Without the virtue of a replay, because the broadcast didn’t catch the start of the incident, it began when Earnhardt and Tristan McKee, a 14-year-old second-year racer, came together and collected Dickens.
In real time, Earnhardt was adamant that he couldn’t do anything different but wondered aloud after the race if that was true. He just didn’t know without the benefit of a replay.
“I thought I gave him a lane and a half,” Earnhardt said. “It was early in the race, and when I powered up of the corner, I powered up low, straight off the bottom and was giving him plenty of room, wanted to stay low on his inside, but I didn’t want to let him get down in front of me.
“After spinning out Cox last year, I was trying to be careful and I felt like I gave him a lane and a half and we came off the corner and he kind of turned left.”
Earnhardt wondered if he worked left towards the corner the way he did because of the dirt or a concrete patch up top that he called ‘unnerving’ to run over and that’s what contributed to the incident.
It’s worth noting that the patch started coming up near the end of the race, too. That might have been a factor.
Regardless, Earnhardt was worried about getting penalized to the rear of the field because that happened in this race last year after an incident with Matt Cox but that decision never got handed down on Saturday night.
The loudest reaction to anything that happened on track Saturday was on a late restart when Earnhardt got the jump on Stephen Nasse ahead of him and took him and Connor Zilisch three-wide. Earnhardt has taken a liking to Nasse over the years and enjoyed racing him on Saturday.
“I raced Nasse a lot and we rode, saving tires a little bit together and it’s just cool seeing the Super Late Model guys come down here,” he said. “You know, he’s a Snowball Derby guy and he’s runs with the big boys in those Supers and it’s really cool when he or a Bubba Pollard decide to run with us.
“I talked to Stephen for a little bit this weekend and he says he’s having a fun time doing it. He ran CARS Tour a little bit. He says he’s having fun. So that’s all good. I hope we see some more crossover. Josh Williams was here with Kaulig this weekend. You just don’t know who is going to show up.”
Beyond the incident with McKee, the only other pressing complication was that a bearing came out of his brake pedal, making the last couple of restarts really adventurous.
“Well, I was looking at it down there and I was like, the only thing I can think of is the bearings come out of it,” Earnhardt said. “So for it to move back and forth and I was trying to look under caution, but that was a little unnerving because you worry you’ll reach for the pedal and it’s not going to be there, laying on the floor.
“It’s just the weirdest little thing. We’ll look at it when we get back but we had some gremlins. We slipped the clutch a lot. We had it slip in practice and in races before, and we changed everything.
“But it was a lot of fun though.”