Back-to-back Top-10 finishes at Bristol (10th) and Atlanta (eighth) has allowed Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to breathe a little bit in regards to making the Chase for the Sprint Cup. He only has to finish 32nd or better to clinch a spot in the post-season tonight at Richmond International Raceway.
A big problem at RIR could still keep him from making the post-season, but as he indicated on Thursday, his timely efforts in the last two events has him confident enough that he can just focus on the race itself.
“It’s just a normal weekend to me,” he said. “Fortunate enough we’ve had enough good runs over the last couple weeks to put ourselves in this situation, not have to be nervous or worried.
“It wasn’t much fun over the last couple weeks having to make sure we didn’t make any mistakes and give up too many points to the guys behind us.”
After finishes of 30th and 36th at Watkins Glen and Michigan respectively, Earnhardt slipped to seventh in the Sprint Cup standings. But he’s been able to stop his descent, and enters Richmond tonight with a 37-point cushion over 11th place.
Still, it hasn’t been an easy month for Earnhardt, fretting over the big picture and trying to keep his year from unraveling. It’s been a marked contrast to last year, which saw him manage to clinch his Chase spot with two races to go in the regular season.
“I definitely understood last year when we were set, locked in, that it was a much easier ride, much more enjoyable,” he said. “The last couple weeks have been pretty stressful from a points standpoint.
“[It’s] difficult for you because you have to focus so much on those points. You have to focus on all those guys – that handful, half a dozen guys – that are around you in points, wonder what they’re doing. You can’t help it.”
But with a Chase spot in sight, Earnhardt believes that he and his Hendrick Motorsports team can be a contender in the ten-race stretch.
However, they’re not in just yet. And with tonight sure to be pressure-packed for everyone trying to keep their championship hopes alive, Earnhardt seems to think that patience will be necessary on his part during the race.
“There are guys in there that aren’t going to make the Chase, aren’t too happy about their situation, going to have some pretty short fuses out there,” he said. “You don’t want to rough up anybody. You want to take your time getting around some of these guys.”