Don’t look now, but it’s been a good Chase for Junior since Chicago

Posted Wednesday, Nov. 06, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Dale Earnhardt Jr. is quietly having a good Chase, though it’s hard to imagine the most popular driver in NASCAR doing anything without notice.

A runner-up finish last week at Texas Motor Speedway made it three in the past six weeks for Earnhardt and bumped him to fifth in the Chase standings. He’s too far out to catch Jimmie Johnson or Matt Kenseth, but third place is not out of the picture. And that would match his career high.

It would be a lot to show for the season after he finished last in the Chase standings, largely, but not entirely, because he missed two races with a concussion.

“Dale’s confidence is higher than I’ve seen it since he’s been with us,” team owner Rick Hendrick said after Sunday’s AAA Texas 500. “You know, if he hadn’t had that motor problem early in the Chase, he’d be right there.”

Ah, that motor problem.

In the Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway, Earnhardt lost the engine with 44 laps to go and finished 35th. That immediately put him more than a race’s worth of points behind the leader.

“Yeah, I mean, the Chicago deal is regrettable,” Earnhardt said. “We’d love to go back and do that over again. But as soon as that happened, we really changed our approach, and it was more about trying to win a race. Winning a race would really lift all the team’s spirits.”

So since Week 1 of the Chase, Earnhardt hasn’t worried about winning the Chase. It was already out of reach.

But in putting thoughts of the championship aside, he has put himself in position to win races. He has averaged a 6.1 finish since Chicago.

“You can see it in the way he walks,” Hendrick said. “You can see it when he gets out of the car. You can see it when I talk to him about the race. He’ll send me a text and say, ‘Man, that car was good.’ You know, I see it in the way he goes to the racetrack and how he prepares for the race. His confidence is at an all-time high. You can just see it in his face. You can see it in his interviews.

“I mean, I can.”

Earnhardt hasn’t won since June 2012 at Michigan, and before that he hadn’t won in four years.

But his misses are much smaller than they used to be.

“When you can run consistently in the top 5, you’re going to win races, and he’s been right there,” Hendrick said. “We get plenty of questions: ‘When is he going to win the race?’ But he’s right there. So I think as competitive as he is, it’s answered a lot of questions.”

Earnhardt wasn’t frustrated after the runner-up finish Sunday at TMS. Maybe if Jimmie Johnson had given anyone any chance of catching him, Earnhardt might have lamented the lost opportunity.

“Yeah, I think about that a little bit,” Earnhardt said. “But there isn’t much you can do about it.”

Instead, he thought about what he has done so far.

“We’re not running second by making mistakes. We’re not giving away wins,” he said. “So I feel like we’re just really getting close to cracking through, and just trying to maintain the momentum with two races to go is going to be tough. But that’s what we’re focusing on.”

Series updates

Sprint Cup

Newman at Phoenix: Ryan Newman has a chance to wrap up his last year at Stewart-Haas nicely. He has five top-5 finishes in his last seven starts at Phoenix, including a win (his first with SHR) and a runner-up in 2010.

Martin at Phoenix: Mark Martin has run more races at Phoenix, 33, than any other driver. Next closest are Jeff Gordon and Bobby Labonte with 29. Martin’s average finish of 9.4 at Phoenix is second only to Jimmie Johnson (6.4).

Nationwide

Hornish’s chance: Sam Hornish Jr. likely has his best chance at Phoenix to close the six-point gap between him and points leader Austin Dillon. He has a win and three top-10s in six starts at Phoenix.

Camping World Truck

For the title: Matt Crafton needs an average finish of 18th over the last two races to win the series championship. He can clinch the title this weekend by being three points better than second-place James Buescher.

IndyCar

HOF candidate: Michael Andretti is among 22 candidates for induction into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame. The candidates receiving 51 percent of the vote from a media panel will be inducted May 1. The inductees will be announced in December.

NHRA

California dream: Californian Shawn Langdon is poised to win his first Top Fuel title this weekend at the season finale in Pomona, Calif. He is 102 points ahead of defending champion Antron Brown. Langdon won the season opener at Pomona.

5 Drivers who have made 1,000 starts in NASCAR’s national series. Jeff Burton will become the sixth when he starts this weekend at Phoenix. The others are Richard Petty (1,185), Mark Martin (1,141), Joe Nemechek (1,073), Michael Waltrip (1,062) and Terry Labonte (1,013).

Quoteable

“The other thing that helped was Brad Keselowski on that last restart really pushed me out there. That was the second race in a Ford for Brad, and for him to do that and give us that little bump it really meant a lot.”

— Carl Edwards, on his Phoenix victory in March

Carlos Mendez, 817-390-7407 Twitter: @calexmendez

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