Money and popularity can take you only so far in the world of sports. Just ask the New York Yankees, who have won the World Series once in the past 12 years and are in danger of missing the playoffs entirely this season. Or the Dallas Cowboys, who have managed only one playoff victory in the past 16 seasons. At some point, people start to notice when all the dollars and all the cheers don't go along with victory.
Auto racing is no different. Exhibit No. 1, once again, is Dale Earnhardt Jr. He's easily been the most popular driver in NASCAR for more than a decade, and he races for the deep-pocketed Hendrick Motorsports organization. Yet suddenly, shockingly, Earnhardt finds himself in real danger of not making the Chase. If that happens, it will be the fifth time in the past nine years that he has failed to qualify for NASCAR's postseason, and the third time in his six years with Hendrick.
Here are the facts: A wreck that wasn't his fault at Watkins Glen resulted in a 30th-place finish. That was followed by a blown tire at Michigan on Sunday that caused him to hit the wall and finish 36th. Just as quickly, he has gone from fifth place and a seemingly secure position for a berth in the Chase to seventh place, and only 20 points away from dropping out of the top 10 in the standings and losing an automatic spot.
With three more races left in the regular season, that means Earnhardt would have to lose an average of only seven points per race to the drivers behind him (perhaps fewer, counting bonus points) to fall from the top 10. And since he hasn't picked up a victory this season, he is not eligible for one of the Chase's two wild card berths should he slip below 10th place.
While Earnhardt's recent run of bad luck is not his fault, he deserves some blame for his failure to win a race. If he had won any of the season's first 23 races—as Greg Biffle, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano, Ryan Newman and even David Ragan did—then he would almost certainly be a lock for the Chase right now. Instead, there is doubt about his ability to contend for the Cup title.
"We're not an 11th-place team," Earnhardt said after the race on Sunday. "We're a top-5 team." But he has actually managed only two top-5s in the past 18 races (at Fontana on March 24, and at Pocono on Aug. 4). His average finish during that span is a pedestrian 17.6.
All of which makes the upcoming Saturday night race at Bristol so crucial for Earnhardt. Bristol is a place where bad luck lurks around every corner, and there is a corner just about every seven seconds on the .533-mile short track.
Even though Earnhardt has built a reputation for being at his best on the circuit's superspeedways (nine of his 19 career victories have come at Talladega, Daytona and Michigan), he has proved to be a solid short-track driver. He has three career victories on Richmond's 3/4-mile track, and one at Bristol. In addition, his career average finish at Bristol of 11.6 ranks second to Kyle Busch among all active drivers.
This is the week, in other words, that Earnhardt can go out and race his way into the Chase. A victory would definitely put him in, but a top-10 run would probably be good enough. It is time for him to take all the advantages that come with money and popularity, and use them to make his own luck.
1. Jimmie Johnson (1st previously) -- It was another lost day at Michigan for Johnson, who blew an engine early in Sunday's race and finished 40th for easily his worst showing of the season. His previous worst? That would have been a 28th-place finish at Michigan two months ago. For his career, Johnson is winless at MIS with only nine top-10s in 24 starts.
2. Clint Bowyer (3rd) -- Is he really the second-best driver in NASCAR? Well, he is second in the point standings, and he is one of only two drivers to have finished in the top 20 in each of the past six races. (Kevin Harvick is the other.) In fact, Bowyer has rolled up a streak of 18 consecutive top-20 finishes. But he still has no wins.
3. Kyle Busch (2nd) -- For the first time in nearly two months, bad Kyle showed up. An early wreck led to a 31st-place finish at Michigan, the sixth time this season that he has wound up in the 30s. But he also has 14 top-10s, second only to Johnson. When good Kyle is on the track, there are few better drivers.
4. Kasey Kahne (4th) -- Kahne avoided trouble at Michigan, so that alone counts as a good day for him. When he's not getting caught up in wrecks, he is easily one of the best drivers in the sport. But he's been involved in enough issues this season to leave him in 11th place in the point standings, despite having more victories (two) than half the top 10 drivers combined.
5. Kevin Harvick (7th) -- After finishing outside the top 10 for three consecutive weeks, Harvick bounced back strong with a runner-up showing at Michigan. Take away his restrictor plate crashes at Daytona and Talladega, and he has not finished worse than 19th all season. But he still has led a total of only 11 laps since his last victory back in May.
6. Kurt Busch (9th) -- Somehow, some way, Busch has turned the single-car Furniture Row Racing operation into a legitimate Chase contender. His third-place finish at Michigan gives him six top-10s in the past eight races. And now the circuit heads to Bristol, where he has won five times.
7. Matt Kenseth (6th) -- It was a ho-hum 15th-place finish at Michigan for Kenseth, who has fallen significantly off the pace during the second half of the season. In the six races since he picked up his fourth victory of the year, at Kentucky in late June, Kenseth has managed only two top-10s and has an average finish of 17.8.
8. Carl Edwards (8th) -- Edwards has drifted into Greg Biffle territory. He's now a good driver who will turn in consistent top-20 runs and pick up a win on occasion, but for the most part he's a step removed from the elite class. He remains third in the point standings even though he has only five top-10 finishes in the past 12 races.
9. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (5th) -- Bad luck has hit Earnhardt each of the past two weeks and he's suddenly in danger of missing the Chase. It isn't his fault that he has slipped so quickly, but misfortune plays a part in both the point standings and the Power Rankings.
10. Joey Logano (unranked) -- Logano is still on the outside of the Chase (he trails Martin Truex Jr. by seven points for the second wild card spot), but his victory at Michigan gives him the momentum to pass Truex, Keselowski and Biffle for the final spot in the Power Rankings. Take away his consecutive 40th-place finishes in early July, and Logano's average finish in the other 10 races since Memorial Day weekend is 6.9.