With nothing left to do but win, Dale Earnhardt Jr. faces Talladega with optimism

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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.”

Kyle Busch interests McLaren for Indy 500, but team is leaning toward experience

McLaren Indy Kyle Busch
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With Arrow McLaren SP heavily weighing a fourth car for the Indy 500 next year, Kyle Busch is a candidate but not at the top of the IndyCar team’s list.

McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown addressed the possibility Wednesday morning during a video news conference with Gavin Ward, the team’s newly named racing director.

“I have not personally spoken with Kyle Busch, but you can read into that that someone else in our organization has,” Brown said. “We want to make sure if we run a fourth car, we’re in the mindset that we want someone that is experienced around the 500. It’s such an important race, and from a going for the championship point of view, we’ve got three drivers that we want to have finish as strong as possible, so if we ran a fourth car, we’d want to be additive, not only for the fourth car itself, but to the three cars and so bringing in someone who’s not done it before potentially doesn’t add that value from an experience point of view.”

Busch will race the No. 8 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing next season in NASCAR under a new deal that will allow the two-time Cup Series champion to make his Indy 500 debut. Busch, who had a previous deal to run the Indy 500 nixed by Joe Gibbs Racing, openly courted Chevy IndyCar teams to contact him during his introductory news conference with RCR last month.

After Team Penske (which has given no indications of a fourth car at Indy alongside champion Will Power, Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin), McLaren is the second-best Chevy organization, and it’s fielded an extra Indy 500 car the past two years for Juan Pablo Montoya. The Associated Press reported last month that McLaren was in “serious conversation” about running Busch at Indy with Menards sponsorship.

But with its restructured management, the team is in the midst of significant expansion for 2023. AMSP is adding a third full-time car for 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi to team with Pato O’Ward and Felix Rosenqvist, and a massive new shop also is being built in the Indianapolis area.

“(It’s) not because of him but purely because of experience,” Brown said of Busch. “He’s an awesome talent and would be huge, huge news for the speedway. But yeah, I think everyone is under consideration if we decide to do it, but experience is right at the top of the list as far as what’s going to be the most important to us.”

And it seems likely there will be a veteran joining Rossi, O’Ward and Rosenqvist at the Brickyard.

“A fourth car at the 500 is very much under consideration,” Brown said. “I wouldn’t even want to get ahead of ourselves, but we wouldn’t be ruling out a fourth car in the future on a full-time basis. That definitely wouldn’t be for ’23. But as we expand the team and get into larger facilities and things of that nature, it’s something that Gavin and I have spoken about.

“I think we would be in a position to run a fourth car at the 500 this upcoming year. If we do decide to do that, we’ll make that decision soon for maximum preparation, and I would say we’re open minded to a fourth car in ’24 and beyond and probably will make that decision middle of next year in time to be prepared if we did decide to do that.”

Brown also addressed the future of Alex Palou, who will be racing for Chip Ganassi Racing next season after also signing a deal with McLaren. Though Brown declined to get into specifics about whether Palou had signed a new deal, he confirmed Palou will continue to test “our Formula One car from time to time.

“Everyone has reached an amicable solution,” Brown said. “We’ve now had Alex in our Formula One car as we have Pato. That will continue in the future, which we’re quite excited about. At this point we’re laser-focused on 2023 and glad to have the noise behind us and now just want to put our head down and get on with the job with the three drivers we have.”