Three weeks ago, as he prepared to enter the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ regular-season finale at Richmond International Raceway, Dale Earnhardt Jr. seemingly had everything to lose and little to gain.
Now, just two races into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, NASCAR’s most popular driver seemingly has a lot to gain and virtually nothing to lose. Funny how only a little time can radically change how a driver and team approach the business at hand.
Unlike at Richmond, where Earnhardt needed to merely avoid disaster to achieve his objective – a berth in the Chase – the Hendrick Motorsports driver finds himself in a totally different situation entering Sunday’s third Chase round at Dover International Speedway.
Instead of being on the defensive and trying to protect what’s his, Earnhardt and his No. 88 Chevrolet team are on the offensive and willing to take more risks than they often would to get a win.
“You look at your position in the Chase and you see, all right, we’re way behind,” said Earnhardt, who recorded a DNF thanks to a blown engine in the Chase opener two weekends ago at Chicagoland Speedway. “We’ve got ourselves off to a terrible start in Chicago. So we don’t really need to try to string together decent finishes. That’s not going to do much for us. We’re behind so far that trying to be consistent and just rattle off top 10s if we can, there is no moral victory there.
“We can gamble on tire strategy and get off sequence in the race and try to make it work for you and get to Victory Lane.”
Sitting 11th out of the 13 Chase drivers, a whopping 62 points in arrears of championship leader Matt Kenseth, Earnhardt would need a mini-miracle to climb into title contention over the final eight races.
So his mission this weekend at Dover and continuing through the end of the season is rather simple: Go for broke and see where he ends up when the checkered flag waves on the 2013 finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in mid-November.
“You want to be consistent if you can, but if you start off (the Chase) like we did, you just kind of throw it all out the window and try to get a trophy or two before the season’s out,” Earnhardt said.
Despite making the Chase a third consecutive season, trophies have been few and far between for the third-generation driver in recent years.
Earnhardt and his Steve Letarte-led team are winless over this season’s first 28 races and the final 21 races of last season. Earnhardt’s most recent victory came last June at Michigan International Speedway, where he snapped a four-year drought that to his legions of fans undoubtedly seemed like an eternity.
Looking back over the 2013 season to date, Earnhardt believes there have been races he had the potential to win before circumstances dictated a different outcome. Many of those races were early in the year, when the Kannapolis, N.C. native reeled off three top fives and five top 10s – including a pair of runner-up finishes – in his first five starts, and even led the standings for a week.
The momentum didn’t last, however. Since that initial handful of races, Earnhardt has just two top-five finishes and has struggled to run up front consistently.
“We started the year out strong,” Earnhardt said. “I mean, if we could have beaten Carl Edwards out in that last pit stop in Phoenix, we thought we could have won that race. We had a string of good finishes and we were leading the points after the first five or six races of the year. I feel like we really applied ourselves and adapted to the new car pretty quickly.
“Now, everybody else has sort of caught up, and even surged ahead in some areas – you’re seeing Matt (Kenseth) have an awesome year, and it looks like Gibbs (Joe Gibbs Racing) is having a better year performance-wise all around. Some teams at Roush (Fenway Racing) are starting to find some competitiveness, and just as the season has gone on, things have evened out a whole lot more.
“So I think we’ll have to work in the off-season to try to put … all the teams are working in the off-season to try to start the year off with an advantage over everybody, and we’ll just have to do that.”