FORT WORTH, Texas (Nov. 4, 2013) – The opening Chase race at Chicagoland may be a distant memory for Dale Earnhardt Jr., but after posting his third runner-up finish in eight Chase races in Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway its impact continues to haunt him.
Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88 AMP Energy Gold/7-Eleven Chevrolet) moved from seventh to fifth in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship following the AAA Texas 500 and the performance extended an outstanding run since his misfortune at Chicagoland that crushed his title aspirations.
Since that 35th-place finish at Chicagoland from an engine failure that dropped him to last (13th) in the Chase, he has stormed back with six top-10 finishes in the ensuing seven Chase races, including half of them in the runner-up position, and has led 10 or more laps in five of those. Earnhardt Jr.’s only non-top-10 finish during that span was 15th at Charlotte and his average finish after Chicago has been a solid 6.14.
“The Chicago deal is regrettable,’’ Earnhardt Jr. said following the AAA Texas 500. “We'd love to go back and do that over again, but as soon as that happened we really changed our approach and it was more about trying to win a race. Winning a race would really lift all the team’s spirits. You work all season long not to go winless and not to getting to Victory Lane. So I know how much the guys want the win on the team. So that's what we're working for now.
“But, yeah, I think about that a little bit. But there isn't much you can do about it. I've got two races to go and we'd love to get a win in one of them and continue to have a good run here in the Chase.”
Added team owner Rick Hendrick: “If you just go back and give him a top 10 for the motor that he lost in the first of the Chase, then it would be entirely different story.”
Earnhardt Jr. has no chance of catching Chase leader and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet), who he trails by 62 points, or second-place Matt Kenseth (No. 20 Home Depot Let’s Do It Toyota), who is 55 ahead of him, but he does have an opportunity to finish among the top three in the championship.
He is only 22 points behind third-place Kevin Harvick (No. 29 Budweiser Chevrolet) and 10 back of fourth-place Kyle Busch (No. 18 Snickers Toyota). Should Earnhardt Jr. be able to move up to third in the championship over the next two weeks at Phoenix and season-ending Homestead, it would equal his career-best championship finish in 2003. At the same time, he also would like to end his winless streak that dates to Michigan in June of 2012.
“We want to put forward a good account of ourselves in the Chase because you're in there for a reason and you don't want to be an also-ran,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “So we feel like we're doing a lot of good work and getting really close to probably breaking through and getting a win. We've only got two more opportunities at it, but real pleased with just the speed of the car.”
Hendrick clearly can see the progress made by Earnhardt and the No. 88 team and that elusive return to Victory Lane may be nearing.
“I have this theory,” Hendrick said. “You're not going to win until you're consistently in the top 10 and then you've got to be consistently in the top five. When you can run consistently in the top five, you're going to win races and he's been right there. … His confidence is as high as it's ever been. We get plenty of questions of when he is going to win the race, but he's right there. So I think as competitive as he is, it's answered a lot of questions and I think we're going to build on that momentum.
“Hopefully, we can continue the next two weeks. He's really good at Phoenix. He likes Homestead. We had a great test there. I hope he can win a race and carry this momentum into next year. I think he could be right in the middle of this championship had we not lost that engine, and he had nothing to do with that.”