BRISTOL, Tenn. – After his best finish in almost a month, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had one thing on his mind.
“I’m ready to go home, get on the lake!” he said, pumping his fist.
But as Earnhardt Jr. enjoyed a rare Sunday off from Nextel Cup racing, he was faced with the harsh realization that his last chance to win a championship for Dale Earnhardt Inc. is slipping away.
Carl Edwards clinched a berth for the Chase for the championship by winning Saturday night’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway, leaving Earnhardt Jr. farther from contention with his fifth-place finish. With only two races to go before the championship field is set, Earnhardt is 158 points away from the 12th and final qualifying spot.
He knows that not making the Chase is considered professional failure – Earnhardt Jr. lived it during a miserable 2005 season – and dreads what the final 10 weeks of the season will be like if he again isn’t eligible to run for the title.
“When we don’t make it, everybody makes a big deal out of it,” he said.
“They talk about it pre-race. They talk about it post-race. It’s a bummer when you see that and have to watch that and read it and what not. You kind of want to go under the radar when you can’t get it done.”
But NASCAR’s most popular driver can’t ever go under the radar. His every move is scrutinized, and Earnhardt Jr. is convinced the credit for his success isn’t nearly as great as the criticism for his failures.
Despite 17 career victories, a Daytona 500 win and two Busch Series championships, Earnhardt Jr. is often judged by his inability to win a Cup title. The closest he came was third in 2003, and he’s not seriously contended since a brief run at the title in the inaugural 2004 Chase.
“Y’all make it pretty miserable because that’s all y’all talk about,” he told reporters Saturday night. “I shouldn’t tell you that you dictate my mood. But now you know.”
And if Earnhardt Jr. fails to make the Chase for the second time in three years, he’ll be faced with the fact that he’ll likely never win a Cup title for his late father’s team. He’s leaving DEI at the end of this season to drive for Hendrick Motorsports, where he’s got a five-year contract and hopes to finish his career there.
His relationship with his stepmother is a bitter rollercoaster ride – he blasted Teresa Earnhardt a week ago for not letting him take his No. 8 with him to Hendrick, then on Friday implored fans to halt their Internet attacks against her. It seems unlikely he’ll drive for DEI again.
When he said in May he would leave at the end of the year, he promised to go hard the rest of the year. That won’t change the next two weeks as he tries to knock Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. or Kurt Busch out of the Chase.
“All I can do is be (aggressive) and run as good as I can run,” Earnhardt Jr. said.
Edwards believes Earnhardt Jr. has the right attitude and that Busch, currently 12th, should keep a close eye on his rearview mirror.
“If I were 158 points ahead of 13th in 12th position, I’d still be having trouble sleeping at night,” Edwards said. “I think the last spot is still up for grabs. Two bad races for Kurt would be rough.”
Busch, who finished one spot behind Earnhardt Jr. in sixth, knows he can’t let up the next two races, at California and Richmond.
“We’re running more consistent, and that’s what it takes if you want to be a championship contender,” said Busch, who won Tuesday’s rain-postponed race in Michigan. “But for us, we still have to get into the Chase. We’re not locked in, so we’re not losing focus with two more races.”
Not even Ryan Newman, who is 14th, is giving up.
“We still have a shot at it,” he said. “Mathematically, we still have a chance. We’re just trying to give it our best shot, each and every lap. That’s good enough in my eyes – whether it’s good enough to make the top 12, we’ll see.”
With all that pressure, Earnhardt Jr. has his work cut out for him. Two engine failures in the last five races have put him in this position, and he believes his No. 8 team is better than its given credit for.
But if he misses the Chase, Earnhardt Jr. said he won’t head to the lake for the final 10 races of the season. He intends to stay committed and try to drive his way into Victory Lane one last time in his red No. 8 Chevrolet.
“Maybe we can get us a win,” he said. “I’ll be more ticked off if I don’t win a race this year because I’ve run good all year. We’ve had so many opportunities, you know?”