Dale Earnhardt Jr. resurfaced at Chicagoland, finishing third in the Chase opener. Considering how he'd closed out the regular season, it seems unlikely anybody saw Earnhardt coming, but it didn't surprise him.
"You know what, I felt like we would do well in the Chase," Earnhardt said. "These are good tracks for me. And the tracks where I ran poorly just aren't. If you look at my track record, I don't run good at those tracks. I felt we would rebound and kind of return to the form we started at the beginning of the year."
Earnhardt hadn't had a top-five finish since taking second at Kansas on June 5. Chicagoland was his third top-10 in the past 14 races. Earnhardt was third in the points leaving Kansas and he was the final automatic Chase qualifier on points.
Making the Chase was an accomplishment for Earnhardt. He hadn't been in Sprint Cup's 10-race championship since 2008 and was coming off seasons of 25th in the points in 2009 and 21st in 2010. Rick Hendrick's decision to shuffle crew chiefs following last season worked out well for both Jeff Gordon and Earnhardt, who was paired with Steve Letarte.
"We've had a good run this year," Earnhardt said. "We've been a good team. We really overshadowed just how good we were with how poorly we ran in the last 10 weeks. Hopefully, we'll take this opportunity in the Chase to prove to everyone and ourselves how good we can be."
The Chase will define Junior's season. He hasn't shown the speed to win the championship or a race, but some top-fives and a cluster of top-10s could land him in the top three or four in points and thrust him into the offseason with momentum that would carry into Daytona in February. Earnhardt and Letarte would know they're really on the right track.
Earnhardt is capable of winning one of the so-called fuel mileage races and there figures to be more this season. He's skillful at saving fuel and maintaining a decent pace. He showed it at Chicagoland and his second at Kansas was the same type. So was his win at Michigan in 2008.
It was going to be a top-10 at Chicagoland for Earnhardt regardless of how much was left in his tank. He was sixth with two laps to go.
"Obviously, we gained a lot of spots there at the end with guys that were short of fuel," Earnhardt said. "But we were running really well at the end. The car struggled off and on throughout the day. We didn't have great track position, either. I was real happy with being able to adjust the car, improve it. That's all you can ask for as a driver, that the car gets better all day long.
"We tried to be really smart and utilize every minute in practice and try to really focus on practice and get everything out of it. And we tried to just be really smart about our adjustments and what we were trying to learn from the car throughout the weekend so we could put a good car out on the grid. I think we did a good job of that. We never worried about our fuel mileage. We started saving gas and backing off with about 20 to go. It started running out at [Turn] 4, but ran to the finish line. It wouldn't have made another lap."
Earnhardt will be returning to tracks in the Chase where he's had his best results this season. In addition to Kansas, he was also second at Martinsville. Talladega is the most unpredictable race remaining, but Earnhardt is one of the best restrictor-plate racers in Sprint Cup and was fourth there in April. He was seventh at Charlotte, ninth at Texas and 10th at Phoenix.
A fast start and a fast finish to this season would suit Earnhardt just fine, and it seems within his reach.