BRISTOL, Tenn. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. got a much-needed good finish, but is it too little too late?
Earnhardt Jr., who has been fighting blown engines and pit road miscues in recent weeks in his quest to make the cutoff for the Chase for the Nextel Cup, completed a clean race in Saturday night’s Sharpie 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.
His fifth-place finish was just his second top-10 in his past seven races, but it came at an opportune time with just two races remaining before the 12-driver field is set for the Chase.
NASCAR’s most popular driver still faces an uphill battle.
Earnhardt Jr. trails 12th place Kurt Busch by 158 points with races left only at California and Richmond, Va., to make up the difference. He only gained five points compared to his position before the race.
“We didn’t get the win like I wanted to. My team did a great job and we ran well all night. We’ve been running real well, but had stuff happen to us in too many races,” Earnhardt Jr.
With his prospects of making the Chase still in jeopardy, Earnhardt Jr. said his focus is on winning a race, which he hasn’t done since the spring race at Richmond, Va., last season.
“I want to win. If I can’t make the Chase, I want to win a race. When we don’t make (the Chase) everybody makes a big deal over it – they talk about it pre-race and talk about it post-race,” he said. “It’s a bummer when you see that and watch that. You’re just trying to let it go under the radar when you can’t get it done.
“I’d be more ticked off if I didn’t win a race this year because we’ve run well all year. You don’t get credit for running fifth but blowing up.”
The most a driver can gain on another in one race is 161 points, but in Earnhardt Jr.’s case that would only occur if he won and led the most laps and the driver in 12th finished dead last.
Earnhardt Jr. will need vast improvement at California next weekend to help make up some ground on Busch.
In his previous 11 starts at the track, he has three top-10 finishes. He finished 40th there earlier this season after blowing his engine.