|Peter Casey, USA Today Sports|
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s road to a potential 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship has been anything but smooth. A fuel-starved, 25th-place finish two weeks ago at New Hampshire Motor Speedway put his title hopes in severe doubt, and only a solid, third-place showing at Dover the following week allowed him to advance to the Contender Round.
Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Earnhardt dug himself yet another post-season hole with a 28th-place finish that made that championship road even rockier.
Sunday’s rain-delayed Bank of America 500 was only 68 laps old when Carl Edwards attempted to make an inside move on Earnhardt. Contact between the two sent Earnhardt into the outside retaining wall, damaging his Nationwide Insurance Chevrolet. He soldiered on for another dozen laps, dropping back through the field until an exploding right-front tire sent him into the wall yet again, inflicting damage that cost him two laps while repairs were made.
NASCAR’s perennial Most Popular Driver regained one of those lost laps by taking the wave around during a later caution period, but his propensity for running the outside line resulted in a number of additional bouts with the SAFER barrier, severely delaying his recovery.
Things went from bad to worse when Justin Allgaier’s Chevrolet blew an engine on Lap 189, forcing a lengthy cleanup that apparently failed to return the track to race-ready condition. A number of drivers – including Earnhardt – slipped in the remaining oil when the green flag waved once again, with Earnhardt doing additional damage that effectively ended his hopes for a Top-15 finish. His 28th-place showing at day’s end leaves him 11th in the Chase standings, 19 points removed from the eighth (and final) transfer spot, now held by former series champion Brad Keselowski.
“I lost count of how many times we hit (the wall) today,” said Earnhardt, who celebrated his 41st birthday Saturday. “We had a pretty decent car, but Carl got a great run on me down the front straightaway and just drove into my left-rear quarter panel. I’ll have to look to see whether that was a racing deal or whatever. But that put us in the wall the first time.
“We tried everything we could to get laps back, because we had a good enough car to run in the top 20, even after smashing it into the fence all them times,” he said. “We still had okay speed, but we just couldn’t get an opportunity to get those laps back.”
Earnhardt also differed with NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Director Richard Buck’s assertion that the track was clear of oil following Allgaier’s blown engine.
“I went into Turn One -- a lot of us did on that restart -- and went around the Speedy Dry and right into oil,” he said. “There was oil up on the top they didn’t clean up, so we smashed the fence hard. That was the worst thing that could’ve happened to us, because we just got one lap down and we were going to race for the Lucky Dog. Our day was over after that.”
Despite a disastrous start to the Contender Round, Earnhardt attempted to put a positive spin on his Chase chances, saying simply, “It ain’t over.”
The Hendrick Motorsports driver even found a silver lining in his 11th-place points standing, saying, “We don’t have to go to Talladega and be nervous like those guys that are going to have to play it safe.
“We’ve got a great car that can win that race,” he insisted. “We can go to Kansas (next weekend) and run great. I like that track and don’t see why we can’t run great there and maybe win the race there. Other guys had trouble and other guys will have more trouble. We’ve got to stay positive. We can still make it to the next round. We’ve got two good tracks that we can run well at, if not win.”
Earnhardt’s Kansas numbers are not stellar. He is winless in 18 career starts at the plains oval, with just three Top-5 and nine Top-10 finishes. With that kind of track record, many Earnhardt fans are already looking ahead to Talladega Superspeedway in two weeks, where the third-generation driver is a six-time winner, and as close to a sure bet as there is in NASCAR’s restrictor plate era. Earnhardt, insists, however, that his team can get the job done this weekend in Kansas.
“We were in this situation in the first round,” he said. “We can be aggressive, go to Kansas and run hard.”
If he doesn’t, it’ll be “all or nothing” at Talladega, ensuring some sleepless nights for driver, crew and fans alike.
Jonathan Ferrey/NASCAR via Getty Images