Chase pressure mounting for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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A crash and a flat tire in the last two races have knocked Dale Earnhardt Jr. into the clutches of the ongoing battle among multiple drivers to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

With Earnhardt still winless in 2013 and only 20 points ahead of 11th-place Wild Card holder Kasey Kahne (two wins), his grip on a post-season berth is loosening at the worst possible time.

Before he suffered his tire failure at Michigan – which relegated him to a 36th-place finish – Earnhardt had expressed confidence that he and his team would be where they needed to be when the regular season ended.

But with three races remaining before the Chase, it appears that NASCAR’s most popular driver is getting at least a little troubled about the matter.

“You definitely don’t like to be in this situation,” Earnhardt said according to NASCAR.com while testing at Richmond International Raceway, home to the final race of the regular season, earlier this week.

“I don’t think anybody wants to be on the bubble or be even worried or concerned about points leading up to Richmond, so we hope to have a couple of good weeks and really put ourselves in a pretty comfortable situation before we even come into Richmond.”

Earnhardt, who starts 19th in tonight’s Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway, figures that the 500-lap race will come down to being able to hang on to the top end of the grid as the night progresses.

“It’s just going to be a very competitive race,” he said yesterday. “Everybody runs the same speed. It’s just going to be whoever can be up front and get track position.”

And, of course, stay out of the mayhem that so often pays a visit to Bristol. Should Earnhardt get caught in a pile-up or run into another form of trouble on the tight half-mile, then the pressure already on him to make the Chase will only grow further.

Toro Rosso at crossroads after Kvyat’s point, Hartley’s strong debut

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In a weekend with something to prove at Circuit of The Americas, Daniil Kvyat rose to the occasion with what he called “his best race of the season for sure” at the United States Grand Prix.

But it may not be enough for the Russian to have saved his seat at Scuderia Toro Rosso for the three final races this year.

Meanwhile, New Zealander Brendon Hartley capped off his roller-coaster debut weekend in Formula 1 with a solid 13th place finish after starting from the rear of the grid, learning as the race went on and bringing home his Toro Rosso chassis to the flag.

Toro Rosso faces a dilemma of three drivers available but only two seats to fill for the final three Grands Prix, with the Mexican Grand Prix coming up just next week.

Frenchman Pierre Gasly will be back after missing Austin due to his Super Formula commitments at Suzuka in Japan, but ultimately that went for naught as the races were canceled due to a typhoon.

Kvyat qualified 12th, was promoted to 11th by way of grid penalties and ended 10th, scoring a point for only the third race this year and first time since coming ninth in the Spanish Grand Prix back in May.

It was a weekend where he would have been expected to outdo Hartley, and did so, but not by a massive margin. And he was already coming in with a track time disadvantage, losing out in FP1 as Indonesian Formula 2 driver Sean Gelael ran in his chassis.

As it was, he rated his weekend performance highly and didn’t do his chances of staying in the car any harm.

Speaking to NBCSN after the race, Kvyat said, “Yeah, it was a perfect race. I did everything well. Brought the points home. It was close with (Felipe) Massa.

“We had some energy release issues on the engine. But it was a massive weekend. It was great. I really enjoyed myself. It was a good job by the team to keep it together with very limited running.

Hartley built up confidence throughout the weekend as he learned the car, the Pirelli tires and how an F1 race races versus an endurance race that he’d been used to doing for several years.

Having coming into the weekend with no expectations and just taking the race session-by-session, he felt good at the end of it.

“There’s so many little things to reflect on,” he told NBCSN. “I’ll put the eyes at rest and process it all. I did the standing start and it wasn’t the best… it’s been a long time.

“But yeah, (you’re learning) in terms of following in traffic, what 20 laps on these tires means, how much you can push it. I’m pretty satisfied. The pace was pretty strong. I made the mistake of getting passed by (Lance) Stroll. I couldn’t pass him back. Lots of challenges. I hope I can get another shot at it.

“Up until this moment… I didn’t want to know. I just wanted to do the job. I’m really relaxed. Now there might be some conversations.”

Toro Rosso figures to reveal its Mexican Grand Prix driver lineup early this week.