Earnhardt looking for big run to continue title hopes
TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) Dale Earnhardt Jr. has struggled in the second round of NASCAR's playoffs and needs a good run at Talladega Superspeedway to avoid elimination in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Luckily for Earnhardt, he's pretty good at Talladega.
And he's headed into Sunday's race with a proven car.
The No. 88 Chevrolet that Earnhardt will race Sunday won a qualifying race at Daytona in February, won here in May, then won at Daytona again in July. A fourth win in the car will automatically move him into the eight-man third round of the Chase.
Still, he's not exactly breathing easy.
''It's real intense, there's no denying the intensity and the pressure it puts on drivers like myself to be in a cutoff situation where you're eliminated if things don't go perfectly on Sunday,'' Earnhardt said Friday.
Earnhardt is 11th in the 12-driver field after sub-par races in the second round. He finished 28th at Charlotte and was 21st - lowest of all Chase drivers - last week at Kansas.
But Talladega is his track, and the crowd will be firmly behind him.
They root for him in these grandstands like no other driver, and the roar when he charges to the front can make the ground shake. Earnhardt is a six-time winner at Talladega - tied for most among active drivers with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon - so having this track play such a big role in his title chances gives him confidence.
Earnhardt noted Sunday that there's no other track than Talladega that he'd rather be at this week facing elimination.
''We've won here this year and we've ran good and won at Daytona over the last several years,'' he said. ''So when we come to all the plate tracks, we feel confident we can do well and feel confident in the car. The confidence that you have in the car is really where it all stems from.''
He sits at the bottom of the standings with Kyle Busch (ninth), Ryan Newman (10th) and Matt Kenseth (12th). Busch was in solid position this race a year ago - he was second in the standings - only to be caught up in a wreck and eliminated.
So no one heads into Sunday feeling safe, and only Joey Logano has earned the automatic berth into the third round. Logano won the last two races - he had contact last week at Kansas with Kenseth that spun Kenseth out of the lead, and denied Kenseth an automatic berth into the third round.
''There are certainly going to be some people that race scared and racing scared, to me, means sometimes you race not to win, but to not lose as far as the points are concerned,'' said Brad Keselowski, who is seventh in the standings.
Keselowski was in a must-win situation a year ago, and drove his way to victory lane to continue his playoffs. Eliminated that day were Busch and Hendrick drivers Earnhardt, Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne.
Most drivers have varying strategies of perseverance for 500 miles of plate racing, and many simply watch how it develops. That's what happened in the spring when one long single-file line of drivers circled the track and no one pulled out of line - even with the win in reach.
''I think we've seen races here, in fact the last spring race, we saw that where the race stayed single-file for a long, long time,'' Keselowski said. ''To me, (that) is kind of somewhat a showing of racing scared, where you're happy with where you're running and you don't want to do anything to jeopardize that so you stay in line.''
He wouldn't reveal what he'd like to do to maintain his spot in the playoffs Sunday.
''I'm not really all that interested in sharing what my plan is now,'' Keselowski said.
Earnhardt had a much more simplistic approach.
''When the race starts, run up front and try to stay toward the lead,'' he said. ''I think it's important to be in the lead in the last 50 laps of the race, so we're going to try to be there.''