‘Vacation’ is over for Dale Earnhardt Jr.; now it’s time to get to work in the Chase


Dale Earnhardt Jr. started the 2014 season with a win in the Daytona 500.

Now that he’s in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Earnhardt wants to finish the season the way he started – with a win at Homestead-Miami Speedway and ultimately the Sprint Cup championship.

“It’s been a fun season,” Earnhardt said after Saturday’s final Chase qualifying race, the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway. “I’ve had a blast this year. Our company has been doing so many great things. It’s been obviously a lot of fun to be able to drive such good racecars, work with such great people.

“Hopefully we can put our best foot forward in the Chase and be one of those teams in the battle going into Homestead. But as a company, I don’t think we could be any more prepared than we are.”

Indeed, Earnhardt is part of a four-team Hendrick Motorsports juggernaut, the only organization in the Chase with as many entries (Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne).

Joe Gibbs Racing has three drivers in the Chase (Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin), Team Penske has two drivers (Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano), Roush Fenway Racing has two (Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards), Stewart-Haas Racing also has two entrants (Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick), while those organizations having one sole representative are Richard Childress Racing (Ryan Newman), Richard Petty Motorsports (Aric Almirola) and JTG Daugherty Racing (AJ Allmendinger).

If there truly is strength in numbers, than HMS would appear to have the early edge heading into the Chase. But don’t forget the 2005 Chase, when RFR claimed five of the then 10 Chase spots, and still failed to win the championship (ultimately won by Tony Stewart).

NASCAR subsequently implemented a rule that was effective with the 2007 season that no organization can have more than four teams.

As for Earnhardt, he’ll start the Chase in a strong position (third seed). But he also comes into the playoffs with only moderate momentum, having finished 39th, 11th and 12th in his last three Cup races.

“I wouldn’t want to base (his momentum) on tonight’s run,” Earnhardt said Saturday night on ESPN. “I was pretty disappointed. We ran hard. I was just sitting behind these guys ahead of me with 20 laps to go and they were junk, fighting over the 11th spot. It was frustrating not to be able to get up there and anything with them. We just couldn’t get any power down.

“I don’t think it’s reflective of how strong our team is. I think we’re a real good team going into Chicago, completely different race track and we have a lot of confidence.”

But Earnhardt did surprise more than a few reporters and fans with his post-race comments both on ESPN and in the RIR media center.

“We’ve been sort of on a vacation for 20 weeks,” Earnhardt said, discussing the strong start he had to the season. “It’s time to get to it.”

When interviewed on ESPN, he added, “We’ve been locked in and really on a holiday for 20 weeks or so, since we’ve been locked in. It’s time to get serious, get down to business, get our heads straight and get ready.”

I don’t know about you, but when a driver says he and his team have been on “vacation” or “holiday” for the last 20 weeks, that is troubling.

But Earnhardt also realizes all that is riding on him and the No. 88 team in the Chase.

First, this may be arguably the best chance he’ll ever have at winning his first (and potentially only) career Sprint Cup championship.

Second, crew chief Steve Letarte will leave the team at season’s end to join NBC TV as an analyst on NASCAR races beginning in 2015. Earnhardt would like nothing better than to also win a championship for Letarte, who has never earned a Cup crown in his career as a crew chief.

Third, Earnhardt hits a significant milestone next week: he turns 40 on Oct. 10. When race car drivers reach that point, they quickly come to realize that their career has begun its downhill slide to eventual retirement.

Unless you have a reinvigoration like his teammate, Jeff Gordon, has had this season, Earnhardt knows there’s only so much time left in his career to become the champion so many have long predicted he’d one day be.

“We’re going to try and prepare as good as we can, get our minds right and ready for this Chase,” Earnhardt said at Richmond. “It’s going to be a completely different atmosphere than what we’ve done in the regular season.”

And while he’ll have three teammates to have his back – and he have theirs – in the Chase, as things progress to the four-driver, winner-take-all format in the season finale at Homestead, Earnhardt realizes that things could go from all-for-one and one-for-all to every man for himself when it comes to winning the championship.

Given how strong HMS has been collectively this season with 10 wins in the first 26 regular season races, it would seem to have the early favorite status to many.

But not to Junior.

“I don’t think you could guess who them four guys are going to be (at Homestead),” he said. “With the way the structure is, the elimination, you know, everybody’s got an equal shot.

“So I don’t think there’s any favorites. I know there’s some strong teams obviously that are running really good right now. With the way this thing is structured, it’s sort of structured to balance the playing field a little more and really give everybody a little bit more guesswork on who these guys are going to be that get eliminated and who are the guys that are going to keep moving forward.

“It’s going to be tough. You’re going to have to put together some damn good races.”

That’s so true. The onus is on Earnhardt now. What he does with it in the next 10 races will determine if this truly is his magical season – or he winds up as just another also-ran.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski