TALLADEGA, Ala. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. has no victories and no concerns over whether the absence of a win could preclude him from making the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
The field for the 16-driver playoff is filled by race winners with any remaining berths set by the points standings (there were three slots filled by non-winners last season, and Ryan Newman finished runner-up to champion Kevin Harvick without a victory).
Ranked eighth in the points as the third-highest driver without a win (behind Martin Truex Jr. and Kasey Kahne), Earnhardt is confident entering Sunday’s Geico 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.
“I don’t expect there to be 16 winners, and I believe we’re good enough to get in one of those last few positions by points,” he said. “We’re a good enough team. I’m not really nervous. I feel I can go out and be as aggressive as I want to be and take some chances and see what happens. I don’t feel like points or the Chase or anything will be in the back of my mind buzzing around. I feel we can just do what we need and enjoy myself.”
Earnhardt captured the first berth of the revamped Chase in 2014 when he won the season-opening Daytona 500, erasing any worry at the outset.
The No. 88 Chevrolet has shown speed in the first nine races this season, aside from hiccups at Phoenix International Raceway and a 14th at Richmond International Raceway. He seemed to have the fastest car at Daytona before finishing third, and has four top fives under new crew chief Greg Ives. Earnhardt has been burned a few times by unscheduled stops for to fix wheels left loose by the pit crew.
“The cars have been quick, we just haven’t put races together,” the Hendrick Motorsports driver said. “We didn’t run well (at Richmond) or Phoenix. We have some work to do at that style of track. Everywhere else, I’ve been real fast and happy with the speed. We’ll try to be more aggressive and try to win Sunday.”
With five victories at Talladega (but none since October 2004) and a family legacy to uphold (his late father won a record 10 times here), Earnhardt does feel more responsibility to win at the 2.66-mile oval. Last year, Earnhardt’s fans exciorated him on social media when he led 26 laps but finished 26th. In a confessional podcast the next day, Earnhardt said he was disappointed in himself after admitting he hadn’t pushed the envelope in the closing laps.
“I feel like I’m supposed to get up there and lead, and I feel like it’s a real diusappointment when we don’t finish well and if we’re not up in the battle trying at the end,” Earnhardt said Saturday before qualifying. “If we’re not in that group crossing the finish line that’s up front, I feel that disappointment from all the supporters of our team. More so here and at Daytona and than at the other tracks, for sure.”
While Bristol Motor Speedway and Martinsville Speedway are his favorite tracks to race, Earnhardt said Daytona and Talladega are his favorite places to chill. Because there isn’t much work required to fine-tune setups, drivers and teams aren’t engaged in the weekly scramble that is commonplace for much of 10 months every year.
“I look forward to Daytona and Talladega the most because they’re so laid-back,” Earnhardt said. “There’s really not a lot of work done. The cars don’t handle. You just mash it wide open in practice for a couple of days. I really ain’t had to do a whole lot the last couple of days.
“It’s like a little break during the season . It’s really hectic during the week and during the other race weekends. There’s a lot of stress. This is really low-stress. So I look forward to these weekends maybe more to get a little break in the hectic-ness of how this season goes.”
Earnhardt is wistful, though, for the restrictor-plate rules of 2004-06 when it was easier to pass. The current iteration of Gen 6 cars tend to stay glued and limit drivers from improving their positions
“The way these cars draft, they could be a lot more funner,” Earnhardt said. “But I don’t know what you’d change to make them draft and race a little more fun. (In 2004-06), they raced a little better as far as the show and what drivers were capable and able to do inside the cars. The cars today are stuck together and you can’t get away.
“I still enjoy it. Friday and Saturday is easy. That’s kind of nice.”