A tire failure and crash at Kansas, plus a broken shifter last weekend at Charlotte, have conspired to put Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the brink of Chase elimination going into today’s GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.
The year that was seemingly supposed to finally yield a championship for the sport’s most popular driver may effectively be over by the time the sun sets this evening.
But while Earnhardt realizes how much is at stake and that a victory today is basically his only hope of advancing to the Eliminator Round, it’s not like he hasn’t been in high-stakes situations at Talladega before.
As he himself mentioned yesterday to reporters, there was 2004 when he won at ‘Dega in the fall to move into the points lead (and then subsequently lost it via a 25-point penalty for cursing on TV in Victory Lane). He says he didn’t recognize the importance of the situation then.
He certainly recognizes such things now.
“I definitely have a better sense now with the years of experience and things we’ve learned and mistakes we’ve made in the past,” said Earnhardt, who’s 26 points behind the cutoff to advance. “It’s a pretty big deal. I wish we were in a better position to achieve what we want to achieve and be able to move forward.
“I wish we had to finish ‘X’ or better but we have only one route and that’s to Victory Lane, and that’s the only way we can get forward into the Chase. It’s definitely a tall order but we have nothing to lose. We’re going to go out there and try to accomplish that goal and give it all we’ve got.”
Earnhardt was one of many Chasers that suffered a setback during yesterday’s bizarre, what-did-I-just-witness qualifying session at Talladega. As a result, he’ll start 28th in today’s race – directly in the pack.
You don’t want to be there at Talladega. You want to either be up front and have potential mayhem ensue in your rear view mirror, or lay back far enough and be able to avoid such mayhem when it happens.
Earnhardt would prefer the former. He says with this rules package, it’s very tough – not impossible, but tough – to get past the leader.
“The guy that’s leading the race really is the guy controlling everything,” he said. “He can block and he can do whatever he needs to do as far as getting in front of the line that’s coming to be able to get the push to maintain his speed.
“He can do so much more than everyone else in the field. And that’s just the best place to be.”
With five Talladega wins to his credit, Earnhardt certainly knows what to do in order to put himself at the front. But what about any potential car issues such as the ones at Kansas and Charlotte that have put him in this tough spot?
It seems like Junior Nation – Earnhardt’s army of loyalists – won’t have to worry about that, as Earnhardt felt confident enough to say the No. 88 Chevrolet was “like a bass boat across the lake at 5 a.m. yesterday…Smooth as glass.”
So, it would appear that for Earnhardt, there’s nothing left to it – but to do it.
“After how bad we’ve run the last couple of weeks and the troubles we have, to even have an opportunity is pretty neat on one side of the coin,” he said. “I’m looking at it in a more positive manner than ‘We’re in panic mode and we’ve got to go crazy here.’ We have a shot and we know what we need to do.
“Doing it is another thing obviously, but we’re going to put our best foot forward all day long.”