Earnhardt Jr. confident of Chase success

Dale Earnhardt Jr. strong in final NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup races

Eight of the nine remaining tracks in the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup are ones teams have already raced on this season. So, which driver has the best average finish on those tracks in 2011?

The correct answer: Dale Earnhardt Jr. This season, Junior’s average finish on those eight tracks is 7.625.

Earnhardt’s worst finish at the next eight venues in the Chase is 15th, which came here at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in July. On the other seven tracks, Earnhardt finished second at Martinsville Speedway and Kansas Speedway, fourth at Talladega Superspeedway and in the top 10 at Phoenix International Raceway, Texas Motor Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway. His only other showing outside of the top 10 was 12th at Dover.

But can NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver duplicate that magic throughout the Chase?

Certainly, Earnhardt started NASCAR’s version of the playoffs solidly. His third-place finish in the opening race at Chicagoland Speedway elevated the No. 88 team to fifth in the points standings, the best Earnhardt has been since he finished third in the Michigan International Speedway race in June.

Friday, Earnhardt posted a decent qualifying effort of 12th with a lap of 133.981 mph, his best effort in his past five starts. Still, qualifying is one area where he feels the team needs to improve to factor into the Chase.

“We made a pretty serious impact last week and we just kind of need to keep that momentum going,” Earnhardt said. “I like the racetrack, and I like coming here racing, but you never know what you are going to get. These races are always real competitive and the racing is always kind of aggressive. You kind of have to hope that you can put together a full day and the car will run well and track position is real important. It is difficult to pass here, but that is no real difference from any other place."

But it comes back to qualifying.

“That is the most important part that is hurting us," Earnhardt said. "If we can get some better qualifying efforts and start closer to the front, we would not have to work the whole race just to get in position to run well. As good as we ran the last run at Chicago, if we had had track position all day long, we might have been able to win that race. Those are the opportunities that we let get by us because of how we struggle in qualifying.”

Earnhardt is optimistic the information gathered throughout his first run at racetracks with crew chief Steve Letarte will offer the No. 88 crew a solid baseline in the next eight events. After several weeks of vocalizing his displeasure about some fundamental changes made to his cars, Earnhardt’s concerns were addressed before the Chicagoland race.

Finding a comfort zone has always been paramount to Earnhardt’s success. It was clear that over the summer months, something had changed.

“The cars have not felt like I want them to feel, we have had some platform issues with the cars in the last eight to 10 races and they worked really hard before Chicago to fix that and they did,” Earnhardt said. “The car was really good and it was similar to how we had ran earlier this year, and how they felt and drove similar, which I liked. I was glad they were able to accomplish that."

Red Bull still charging

Despite the fact that Kasey Kahne and Brian Vickers qualified second and third, respectively, for the Sylvania 300 on Sunday, the status of Red Bull Racing beyond this season remainsl unknown.

Vickers, who has been with the race team since its inception in 2007, says he has no idea what the plans are for the team next year.

“At the end of the day the situation we’re in is frustrating,” Vickers said. “Whatever they decide to do, I would love to see Red Bull stay in the sport. Whether I’m a part of it or not. They’re a great brand, I think, for our sport.

"I’ve had a great five years. The opportunities they’ve provided me on and off the racetrack have been fantastic. I can’t thank Red Bull enough and (Red Bull owner) Dietrich (Mateschitz) himself for everything he’s done. I know that company-wide, worldwide they’re going through a lot of changes in a lot of programs — not just the NASCAR program, but around the world and where they want to spend their ad dollars. That’s their decision.”

Internationally, the Austrian-based company has enjoyed tremendous success over the past three seasons in Formula One after its program debuted in 2005. With Sebastian Vettel behind the wheel, the team won its first driver and constructor’s titles last season. Vettel currently leads the points standings with eight wins and 12 podium finishes in 13 starts this season.

The Red Bull NASCAR teams have one win and one Chase berth, both by Vickers, in the past five years. While Vettel and teammate Mark Webber currently top the F1 standings, Kahne and Vickers are 20th and 27th, respectively, in the NASCAR Sprint Cup points standings.

“Since the beginning of Red Bull," Vickers said, "probably a couple years in all the way to present, every year . . . behind the scenes, it’s been: ‘Well, we’re not sure.' 'OK, we’re sure.' 'We’re not sure.' 'We’re definitely sure.’

“The one thing about Red Bull is they are a private company. Most companies in this sport are public companies and they answer to CEOs and boards and it’s a group decision. With Red Bull, it’s up to (Mateschitz). No matter what anyone else says in the company, if Dietrich wants to go racing, then we go racing.

“It would be great if they stayed, whether it was with me or whether it was this team or whatever involvement they had in NASCAR, I would love to see them stay. No one has said anything to me about it. You know as much as I do.”

Baseball Odyssey

Kurt Busch has fulfilled his baseball-park bucket list.

Tuesday, Busch visited Toronto’s Rogers Centre, his 30th and final Major League Baseball stadium.

“After I was on the NASCAR circuit for as long as I was, I realized I got halfway through this, I guess, baseball objective, a bucket list, or just a challenge to myself to go to all the ballparks,” Busch said. “It took 10 years, but it was neat to just try to go to one ballpark a year here and there and try to make sure I got all of them. The toughest ones were the ones geographically challenged, whether it was San Diego or Seattle or Toronto.”

The Chicago Cubs fan celebrated his accomplishment one day earlier — by renting out a brownstone on Sheffield Avenue for family friends to share in his experience of throwing out the first pitch and singing “Take me out to the Ballgame” during the seventh-inning stretch.

Numbers game

3: Poles for Ryan Newman in 2011, including a record sixth at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

8: Races that Brian Vickers, who qualified third, has started in the top 10 this season.

28th: Denny Hamlin’s starting spot for Sunday. For the second week, it's the worst qualifying effort among the Chase drivers.

49: Career Cup poles for Ryan Newman after Friday’s qualifying effort — ninth all time, tied with Bobby Isaac.

1,226: Laps led by Jeff Gordon — the most among active drivers.

Say what?

Dave Blaney recently tested with his 17-year-old son Ryan at Gresham Motor Sports Park in a stock car from Tommy Baldwin Racing. After Ryan topped Blaney‘s speed on the second lap, the former World of Outlaws champ quipped, “It was just another kick in the (pants) for Dad.”

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