TALLADEGA, Ala. — After a deflating start to the season and only one win at a track other than Daytona or Talladega since late 2014, it’s easy to see why some suggest this could be a must-win weekend for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to make the playoffs.
Just don’t count him among that group.
“I don’t buy the notion that we can’t win anywhere but Talladega or Daytona,’’ Earnhardt said Friday at Talladega Superspeedway, a track he has scored six of his 26 career Cup wins. “We have had a dry spell, haven’t won a lot of races. We have won at other tracks in the past. I think if I go in thinking this is a must-win, then I’m probably going to get in there and make a few mistakes.’’
Earnhardt enters this weekend 24th in the points. He is 60 points — the maximum number of points a driver can score in a race — out of what is the final playoff spot at this time.
Five finishes of 30th or worse this season have put Earnhardt in this situation. Some of it has been bad luck, some of it has been mistakes that put him in a bad spot.
He led the Daytona 500 when Kyle Busch cut a tire in front of him and spun. Earnhardt clipped Busch’s car and did enough damage to his car that he was done for the race, placing 37th.
A speeding penalty dropped Earnhardt to the rear of the field at Martinsville and then he was collected in a crash, finishing 34th. Last week, crew chief Greg Ives kept him out while most of the field pitted. Earnhardt was running at the front but was on older tires. He was knocked into the wall when teammate Jimmie Johnson, unaware Earnhardt was on the outside, went up the groove and slammed Earnhardt’s car. Earnhardt continued but finished 30th.
What’s been disconcerting at times is that Earnhardt’s car hasn’t shown top-form speed. It’s an issue some of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates have had this season even with Johnson’s two wins.
Some have raised questions about Earnhardt’s playoff hopes just a third of the way thought the regular season because of his recent record. He has three wins since late 2014. One win was at Daytona, another at Talladega and the other at Phoenix (shortened by rain). Since 2008, Earnhardt has seven wins and they’ve been at Daytona (two), Talladega, Pocono (two), Phoenix and Martinsville.
Earnhardt isn’t focused on that. He views this weekend as an opportunity but knows a win won’t come easy at Talladega even for him.
“I just know what I need to do,’’ he said. “I’ve said it in the past. You’ve got to run the last 50 laps mistake-free and the guy that does that will win the race. That means choosing the right line to move up and take the run. Every move and decision, every slight turn of the wheel has to be the right decision.’’
He says he knows what kind of mindset he needs to succeed Sunday. He notes that in his 2014 Daytona 500 win, he was racing Greg Biffle for position and ran him aggressively. That’s what he’ll have to do Sunday.
“The only way I could keep myself from sliding backwards was to run like one inch off the door and squeeze him against the wall,’’ Earnhardt said of his battle with Biffle. “It really kind of killed both of our cars. But at least he wasn’t passing me.
“It was a bit outside of character for me to drive so much like a jerk, I guess, but that’s what you’re got to do. You’ve got to keep on cracking the whip, keep telling yourself, ‘This is what has to happen, this is how I have to do this to make this work if I want to win.’
“I can’t accept him taking the lead, maybe losing a couple of spots and falling to fourth and thinking, ‘Man, I’ll just get it back.’ That’s not as easy anymore. The cars are too equal.
“You have to be way more aggressive to holding positions and defending positions, and you’ve got to run guys tight and they don’t like it. Nobody likes somebody hanging on their quarter panel because it doesn’t feel good and it makes the cars act weird. You have to do it that way. You have to start the race really with the attitude. You’ve go to be willing to work every single lap and not settle for riding.’’
That’s the mindset he’ll have to have Sunday if he hopes to score a win and earn a playoff spot.