NASCAR

Junior covets another strong Kansas run

Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 National Guard/Amp Energy Chevrolet
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is confident he can win a Sprint Cup race this season.
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Lee Spencer

Lee Spencer is the Senior NASCAR Writer for FOXSports.com. She has provided award-winning coverage of auto racing over the last 15 years. Spencer has lent her expertise to both television and radio and is a regular contributor to SiriusXM Radio and the Performance Racing Network. Follow her on Twitter.

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KANSAS CITY, Kan.

With seven races remaining in NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup, time is running out for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s title hopes.

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Earnhardt valiantly fought back from an initial setback last Sunday at Dover International Speedway — until there was no fight left. The sway bar broke off of the No. 88 Chevrolet due to a faulty weld before Lap 20.

The crew at Hendrick Motorsports has assured Earnhardt it won’t happen again. He was somewhat relieved that the issue was more of a maintenance problem and not a flawed piece.

“My crew chief, Steve Letarte, told me that when they were making the weld, it broke where it was welded together,” Earnhardt said. “There was not enough penetration on that weld; not enough heat. That’s what he told me so that’s what I will go with. I haven’t seen the piece that broke. It’s unfortunate but I’m sure it won’t happen again. (Fellow Hendrick crew chief) Chad Knaus promised me it wouldn’t. I’ll take his word. Pretty strong word.”

Earnhardt soldiered back into the top 15 at Dover before a loose right front tire forced him to pit on Lap 270. Earnhardt lost two laps, restarted 28th and recovered to 24th by the end of the race, but dropped to 10th in the points standings, 34 points out of first place.

High stakes

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On Friday morning at Kansas Speedway, Earnhardt tried to make light of the situation.

“I’m not real happy with it,” Earnhardt said. “I would like to be first. That would be the preferred position.”

To make a comeback in the standings, Earnhardt has to hope that the nine drivers ahead of him have issues. Or Earnhardt could just go out and win. Yes, it’s been 122 races since he did that, but given his second-place performance at Kansas in June, this 1.5-mile track could certainly be the place where Earnhardt turns his luck around.

“You don’t really know, I guess,” Earnhardt said. “I mean, 34 positions, you can do that in a race, there’s only 43 of us in a race. With the right luck, you can make it happen. We’re going to have to run good to do that. We’ll see how that goes. We’ve had some pretty fast cars, some quick enough cars to have some good finishes.

“Man, I would like to win a race before the year is out and I think we can do that as a team. I feel confident that we can do that. I don’t think it’s over by no means.”

Earnhardt has been solid on intermediate tracks this season. He was leading at Charlotte Motor Speedway before he ran out of gas with one lap remaining in the Coca-Cola 600 and settled for seventh. Earnhardt finished ninth at Texas Motor Speedway and third in the Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway.

And he appeared very competitive on Friday. Earnhardt posted the fifth-fastest lap early in qualifying trim during first practice, at 172.894 mph, then improved his speed in qualifying with a lap of 173.238, good enough for 18th.

“Yes, just looking forward to getting on the racetrack and getting back to racing,” Earnhardt said. “Had a couple long, boring days of testing at Phoenix that they don’t hand out any prizes for, so I’m glad to get here and try to see how good we can do. Get back to the grind, you know.”

The driver called Junior turns 37 on Monday. Certainly, winning would be the best present ever. But the celebration could start early with a trip to Oklahoma Joe’s followed by a down-home birthday bash with family and close friends.

“I’m going to go down to my old western town with my family; about 20 or 30 of us down there and just kind of hang out in the saloon for a night,” Earnhardt said of his plans. “It’ll be good.”

Wait until next year

Denny Hamlin has resigned himself to the warming the Chase cellar this season.

With seven races remaining in 2011, he’s going to make the most of his time trying a variety of setups. Hamlin has acknowledged he is “not worried about consistency at all at this point” considering that the No. 11 Fed Ex team is currently 68 points — nearly a race-and-a-half worth of points — behind leader Kevin Harvick.

“I’m sure you’re going to see us very spiky over these next few weeks trying a lot of different things to work on different packages to get better,” said Hamlin, who qualified seventh on Friday. “I feel like there’s some stuff within our cars and stuff that we need to work on, but we’re not going to get to that until next year.”

Hamlin has already converted his car to run Toyota Racing Development engines. Considering Joe Gibbs Racing engines have suffered a dozen failures this season, it’s not surprising that Hamlin wanted to try something new.

“It takes a long process to develop cars the way [the drivers want them] — when drivers want to change them it takes a long time to get it done,” Hamlin added. “So, I feel like we’ve got some good things in the works.

“As long as everyone is open-minded at the shop these next seven weeks to a bunch of radical changes, I think that we have the potential to head in the right direction. I think that you’ll see in the next two to three weeks that we will be heading in the right direction.”

Could a crew chief swap be in order, as well? While Hamlin has publicly supported Mike Ford, rumors persist that a change is coming. Jason Ratcliff, who led Kyle Busch to the 2009 Nationwide Series title, has been mentioned as a possible candidate.

Generation next

Austin Dillon will start 26th in his Sprint Cup debut on Sunday.

Dillon, who will pilot the No. 98 Curb Agajanian Chevrolet, called his qualifying effort “huge”.

The current Camping World Truck Series points leader, who put up a lap of 172.723 mph says, “it’s just fun to be able to go out here and race these guys”.

Although Dillon has known for several months that his first start would come at Kansas, the 21-year-old acknowledged that he was apprehensive before making his qualifying lap — but no more than his grandfather Richard Childress

"Thinking about it going up there, I wasn't nervous all the way up until it was time to go,” Dillon said. “And then it’s just like you think of every little thing that could go wrong. We were fast enough in practice to get in really fast. That time we actually picked up some more speed, but I think if I would have calmed down a little bit it would have helped my lap. I over drove the entrance to (turn) one just a little bit and it hurt me. But, I still got a good lap in.

“I'm excited. So now we get to go practice. Take a deep breath and think about what we have to do to be consistent in the race. Very proud of these guys. We're in the show."

Dillon has been gaining seat time testing Sprint Cup cars for Richard Childress Racing. Dillon, 21, tested at Kentucky Speedway — another 1.5-miler — in July and this past weekend at the one-mile Phoenix International Raceway.

Dillon said he’ll be satisfied if he can put the car into the top 25 on Sunday.

“If we could do that, it will be a great day for us,” Dillon said. “Running all the laps is first and foremost. We've got to get out there. We don't want to get in these Chasers way, but we're going to go out there and race hard."

Tagged: Austin Dillon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin

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