Will one last chance be enough to save Dale Earnhardt Jr.?

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For Dale Earnhardt Jr., it’s all come down to this:

One or done.

Or to put it in more succinct terms, win or done.

As Junior prepares to head to Talladega in a few days, he’s in perhaps the most desperate time of his 15-year Sprint Cup career.

Tied for last in the Chase for the Sprint Cup standings, with teammate Jimmie Johnson no less, the two Hendrick Motorsports drivers are on the verge of elimination.

They both have to win at Talladega to advance to the Eliminator Round – but only one can wind up in Victory Lane.

Sure, mathematically, Earnhardt and Johnson still have chances of advancing to the next round after Talladega without a win, but it will take a lot of luck for them and misfortune for the other 12 Chase drivers to see that possibility realized — two distinct things that you simply can’t count on in the unpredictable world of NASCAR.

Junior has enjoyed his best season in nearly a decade. With three wins, starting with the season-opening Daytona 500 triumph, he’s driven like he did in his early days at Dale Earnhardt Inc.

But somehow, some way, Earnhardt has slipped, fallen and plummeted in the last two races. Starting the Contender Round in a 12-way tie for first place, he’s dropped like a rock to the bottom of the Chase ocean.

And now he’s heading back to Talladega, where at one point early in his career he was so successful and victorious with five wins that fans started to call it TallaDalega.

But Junior’s last win on the 2.66-mile high-banked track was a decade ago, ironically enough, in fall of 2004 – just like this weekend.

Since then, Junior has competed 19 more times at ‘Dega with just three top-fives and three other top-10s.

There have been no wins, although he did come close in this race last season, finishing runner-up.

While as a journalist, you’re not supposed to have favorites, as a race fan I can’t help but feel sorry for Earnhardt’s plight.

This was supposed to be THE season for Junior. After winning Daytona, the year just had a different feel.

And for perhaps the first time in Earnhardt’s career, he had himself and his fans believing that this would finally be the year he’d earn that elusive first Sprint Cup championship.

There were other incentives as well. He was turning 40 (did so this past Friday) and to show his appreciation for all the things that crew chief Steve Letarte had done for him in the last three seasons, Junior was bound and determined to send Letarte out as a winner.

(Letarte will leave Earnhardt and Hendrick Motorsports at the end of this season to become a full-time NASCAR analyst for NBC.)

How has THE season, the long hoped for season, the one where Junior was going to channel Larry The Cable Guy and “Git ‘er done,” suddenly fallen apart so badly?

How heartbroken will the Junior Nation be if their favorite driver – and the most popular driver the last 11 seasons – fails to seal what looked like it was a sure thing, it was meant to be?

Two things will happen at Talladega. Either Junior wins there and the place and NASCAR and the sport go crazy in response, or he leaves there having come so close, only to fall short once again.

In a season where many felt it was Junior’s destiny to finally win the Cup crown, to come so close only to fall short, perhaps the actual reality is that maybe being a Sprint Cup champ will never be meant to be for Junior.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Donny Schatz edges Kyle Larson for Outlaws victory at Lake Ozark

Trent Gower/World of Outlaws
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Donny Schatz made a last-lap pass on Kyle Larson, snatching a World of Outlaws victory Saturday night at Lake Ozark Speedway.

Larson started on the pole, led 30 of 35 laps and was in control until a caution set up a two-lap shootout to the finish before a limited crowd in Eldon, Missouri.

Schatz and Larson traded the lead twice over the final two laps, but the 10-time champion emerged with his first victory since the NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car Series returned in mid-May from a two-month layoff because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

‘THEY’VE STUCK BEHIND ME’: Kyle Larson comments on future, Outlaws plans

“Man, I don’t know what to say, but Kyle’s a damn good racer,” Schatz, who led five laps, told DirtVision after his 296th Outlaws win. “I kind of had to go where he didn’t. We got that green-white-checkered, and I decided I was going to send it. He decided the same thing.

Donny Schatz celebrates at Lake Ozark Speedway after his second Outlaws Sprint Car victory of the season (Trent Gower).

“I’m glad to get the win. It feels like it’s been forever. I’ve been out here 24 years, and every night is a learning experience still.”

Larson finished second in his fifth start since he began racing with the Outlaws after being suspended from NASCAR.

“Obviously, it would have been nice to get the win,” Larson said on DirtVision. “I figured Donny would rip the middle. The restarts before, he’d almost clear me in (turns) 3 and 4. I should have known to protect and block his momentum. I felt I exited 2 OK. We don’t have spotters or rearview mirrors so you can’t see how close he is or really hear it when the pace is so slow.

“I just didn’t do a good enough job to run a smarter final couple of laps.”

Brad Sweet, Larson’s brother in law, finished third, with Shane Stewart and David Gravel rounding out the top five.

Larson rebounded from a 10th in Friday’s feature at Lake Ozark Speedway, continuing his streak of top-10 finishes in all five of his starts since the Outlaws’ return.

“We got our car a lot better from last night, so that was a plus,” said Larson, who finished second and first in back-to-back nights last week at Federated Auto Parts Raceway at Pevely, Missouri. “These guys are really tough. To be on the podium with Donny and Brad, they’ve won lots of big races and championships, it’s nice. I just didn’t do what I needed to do that last restart.”

Larson nearly had a flawless night Saturday, turning a 11.426-second lap to capture his second pole position this season and won the pole dash to start first in the feature.

Larson, who was fired by Chip Ganassi Racing from his NASCAR Cup Series ride last month for using a racial slur in an iRacing event, said last week that he plans to run several more NOS Energy Sprint Car Series races this year.

Larson remains indefinitely suspended by NASCAR but was approved to race by the Outlaws after completing sensitivity training.