(Eds: With AP Photos.)By HANK KURZ Jr.AP Sports Writer
Two weeks ago, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was sailing along looking like a lock to make it into NASCAR’s Chase for the championship, standing fifth in points in one of the most consistent seasons of his career.
Then he finished 30th at Watkins Glen, and 36th at Michigan.
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Suddenly the most popular driver in the Sprint Cup Series is feeling some heat.
”The confidence is there, but the stress is there, too,” he said during a pause from testing Wednesday at Richmond International Raceway, where all four Hendrick Motorsports teams are spending two days.
Earnhardt has fallen to seventh in the standings, just 20 points ahead of teammate Kasey Kahne, who is 11th with three races remaining before the field is set in the regular season finale at Richmond.
The top 10 in points automatically qualify, along with two wild card selections that place a premium on victories. Kahne has two, leading everyone outside the top six, and Earnhardt doesn’t have any.
”You definitely don’t like to be in this situation,” Earnhardt said. ”I don’t think anybody wants to be on the bubble or even worried or concerned about points leading up to Richmond, so we hope to have a couple of good weeks to put ourselves in a pretty comfortable situation before we even come here.”
Earnhardt has three career victories on the 0.75-mile D-shaped oval, which drivers say combines short-track bumping and banging and a superspeedway feel, but his last victory here came in May 2006.
”It’s a tough track,” he said. ”Just looking at everybody as a whole, nobody really comes here and is just great every time. It’s not a track that you see one team consistently dominate. We’ve had good cars here and brought back the same setup and it just didn’t work. You’re never really sure when you show up.”
The series moves to Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend, and also stops in Atlanta before returning to Richmond with what looks to be a battle that could go down to the final laps under the lights at RIR.
Matt Kenseth, who is sixth in points, and No. 12 Martin Truex Jr. are separated by just 35 points.
”The intensity definitely ramps up a little bit, especially with all these short tracks right here butting up against the Chase with Bristol and Richmond,” Earnhardt said. ”It definitely puts some tension in the air and makes everybody a little bit more nervous because anything can happen.”
BOXERS OR BRIEFS?: Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson enjoys interacting with fans on Twitter because it can help build his fan base, but said there are pitfalls, too.
In connecting with people who like you, he said, you also make yourself available to those that don’t.
”The social media world is an amazing world and a great place to connect with your fans and to show you fans part of your life that they don’t generally get to see, and also a side of your personality,” Johnson said, ”but it’s also a great area for haters to get involved and do whatever they want.
”I don’t think anyone’s immune to it. It doesn’t matter what sport you’re in. Haters have a chance, and I’m sure most of them are sitting in their mom’s basement in their underwear sending these tweets.”
BRISCOE’S BACK: Ryan Briscoe will be back at Sonoma Raceway to defend last year’s victory after missing two races with a broken right wrist.
Briscoe was cleared to drive following a full day test for Panther Racing last week at Sonoma, where he wore a carbon fiber wrist brace. He broke his wrist in the first doubleheader event at Toronto last month and needed surgery to repair the break.
”My wrist held up pretty good during the test, although the brace was a bit of a nuisance,” Briscoe said. ”But we made good progress during the test and worked through our program really well. I was pleased with our pace and definitely looking forward to coming back next week to find more speed.”
Briscoe has seven career IndyCar starts at Sonoma. He won last year driving for Penske Racing and has four podium finishes and has led 66 total laps.
”We knew Ryan was a tough guy and would bounce back from his wrist surgery quickly,” Panther owner John Barnes said. ”He looked great at the test we had last week and you don’t have to do much research to see how well he’s done historically at Sonoma Raceway.”
Briscoe has been alternating with Oriol Servia at Panther since JR Hildebrand was released following the Indianapolis 500. It will be Briscoe’s sixth and final race with the team as he’s scheduled to fulfill his ALMS commitments the rest of this season.
DILLON MOVING UP: Ty Dillon will move from the Camping World Truck Series to the Nationwide Series next season, replacing older brother Austin in Richard Childress Racing’s No. 3 car.
The move has long been expected as Austin has been preparing to move full-time to Sprint Cup. No sponsor has been announced for Austin in Cup, and nothing official has been announced by Childress.
But RCR has said Yuengling beer will sponsor Ty Dillon for eight races in the Nationwide Series.
Ty Dillon is fourth in the Truck standings, and on pace to follow the same path as his older brother, who ran two full seasons in the Truck Series before moving up to the Nationwide Series.
LEADER OF THE PACK: After his third-place finish at Mid-Ohio on Saturday, Ohio native Sam Hornish Jr. leads the Nationwide Series driver standings. He holds a 13-point edge on Elliott Sadler, with Regan Smith and Austin Dillon tied for third, two more points off the pace, and 11 races remaining.
”We have a long way to go yet.” Hornish said. ”It’s tough running out there, but a lot of fun.”
PERFECT YEAR: Jeremy Bullins, crew chief for Roger Penske, prepared cars that won all three of the road-course races on the Nationwide Series this season. That’s just a part of eight victories for him and his crew this year.
”We’re certainly on a good streak; there’s no getting around that,” Bullins said. ”We keep trying to make improvements to our cars, and building new cars and try to keep things moving forward.”
AJ Allmendinger has won in his only two starts on the circuit this year – both on road courses – at Road America and on Saturday at Mid-Ohio, and Brad Keselowski won at Watkins Glen two weeks ago.
”Penske cars have just been good on the road courses,” said Michael McDowell, who finished second to Allmendinger at Mid-Ohio. ”It’s not one thing in particular. I’ve been trying to figure it out, too.”
AP Sports Writers Rusty Miller and Noah Trister contributed to this report.
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