Earnhardt, fans wonder: Is this finally his year?

(Getty Images)

JOLIET, Ill. – It’s a question that is raised every year, typically at two different points in the season – before the season-opening Daytona 500 and the start of NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup:

“Will this finally be the year Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins his first Sprint Cup championship?”

Even Earnhardt asks himself that question.

“I think every driver says that,” he said during Thursday’s Chase Media Day in Chicago. “Every driver wonders if they’re going to win.”

Earnhardt can’t help but lament the potential championships that got away over the years. There was his career-best third-place finish in 2003, his fifth-place showing in 2004, ’06 and ’13.

“We’ve always done pretty good during (the regular season) and always been in the top five or top three in points, and even leading in the points in some of these years,” Earnhardt said. “But we never deliver in the Chase. So when it comes down to the Chase, we just have to deliver.”

No season might be more bittersweet for Earnhardt than ’14. He wanted to win the championship for both himself and crew chief Steve Letarte, who would depart at season’s end and become an analyst for NBC Sports’ NASCAR coverage.

Things were going well for Earnhardt in the first round of the Chase, so much so that he led the points after Dover International Speedway through the first three races.

But his season and championship hopes fell apart with the opener of the second round at Kansas.

Earnhardt was leading the race when he blew a right front tire and finished a Chase-worst 39th.

“That pretty much ended our opportunity to move on to the next round,” Earnhardt said.

In just one race, Earnhardt plummeted from first in the standings to 11th. For as positive as he had been after Dover, Kansas was followed by a 20th at Charlotte and a 31st at Talladega, knocking him out of advancing to the third round of the Chase.

In an ironic twist after elimination, he won the first race of the third round at Martinsville, was sixth at Texas and eighth at Phoenix.

After finishing 14th in the season finale at Homestead, Earnhardt ended the season with an eighth-place ranking in the standings.

Now comes this Sunday’s Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN). Earnhardt thinks he’s in a good place as part of a four-driver tie for fifth place (with defending series champion Kevin Harvick, 2004 Chase champion Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards).

“We’ve been consistent, averaged better finishes this year,” Earnhardt said. “We’ve kind of been under the radar a little bit because we haven’t won (since Daytona in July).

“I don’t think consistency is enough, but I think we’re in a better position having that consistency than we were in the past.”

Earnhardt believes crew chief Greg Ives, who was the lead engineer on teammate Jimmie Johnson’s first five championships, will be able to pick up where Letarte left off.

“I feel like I’ve got the right guy,” Earnhardt said of Ives, whom he’s nicknamed “Einstein.”

“Our pit crew has struggled this year,” Earnhardt said. “We’ve made some changes and hopefully we’ll have consistency.

“Those guys want to deliver. Hopefully we’ve made the changes we need to make.”

NOTE: Much has been said about the various downforce packages that NASCAR has experimented with this season. Earnhardt said NASCAR officials should go back a bit in time for the optimal package. “I will say my favorite package for the cars is anything from 1978 to 1980,” Earnhardt said with a smile. “The horsepower and downforce that those cars (have) is what I think we should have.”

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Portland Xfinity race results, driver points

Portland Xfinity results
Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images

Cole Custer went from fourth to first on the overtime restart when the top three cars made contact and went on to win Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Portland International Raceway. Custer is the 10th different winner in 13 races this season.

MORE: Portland Xfinity race results

MORE: Driver points after Portland Xfinity race

JR Motorsports took the next three spots: Justin Allgaier placed second, Sam Mayer was third and Josh Berry was fourth. Austin Hill completed the top five.

John Hunter Nemechek remains the points leader after 13 races. He has a 14-point lead on Hill. Nemechek leads Allgaier by 44 points.

Cole Custer wins Xfinity race at Portland in overtime


Cole Custer held off Justin Allgaier at the finish to win Saturday’s Xfinity Series race in overtime at Portland International Raceway. It is Custer’s first victory of the season.

JR Motorsports placed second, third and fourth with Allgaier, Sam Mayer and Josh Berry. Austin Hill finished fifth.

MORE: Race results, driver points

Custer went from fourth to first on the overtime restart when Parker Kligerman, who restarted third, attempted to pass Allgaier, who was leading. Sheldon Creed was on the outside of Allgaier. All three cars made contact entering Turn 1, allowing Custer to slip by. Creed finished seventh. Kligerman placed 14th.

Custer won the second stage when John Hunter Nemechek made contact with Creed’s car while racing for the lead on the final lap of the stage. The contact spun Creed and Custer inched by Nemechek at the line.

Early in the final stage, Creed gained revenge with contact that spun Nemechek, who went on to finish 10th. A few laps later, Nemechek and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Sammy Smith had issues. Smith spun Nemechek. After getting back around, Nemechek quickly caught Smith and turned into Smith’s car, damaging it.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Sheldon Creed

STAGE 2 WINNER: Cole Custer

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Despite the contact on the overtime restart, runner-up Justin Allgaier managed to score his fourth consecutive top-three finish. … Sam Mayer’s third-place finish is his best on a road course. … Austin Hill’s fifth-place finish gives him four consecutive top-five results.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Daniel Hemric finished 33rd after a fire in his car. … Riley Herbst placed 32nd after an engine issue. After opening the season with six top 10s in a row, Herbst has gone seven races in a row without a top 10.

NEXT: The series competes June 10 at Sonoma Raceway (8 p.m. ET on FS1).

Truck race results at WWT Raceway: Grant Enfinger wins


Grant Enfinger took the lead when the leaders wrecked in the final laps and held off the field in overtime to win Saturday’s Craftsman Truck Series race at World Wide Technology Raceway.

It is Enfinger’s second win in the last five races. He also collected a $50,000 bonus for winning the Triple Truck Challenge.

MORE: Truck race results

MORE: Driver points after WWT Raceway

Christian Eckes finished second and was followed by Stewart Friesen, Carson Hocevar and Chase Purdy.

Ty Majeski and Zane Smith wrecked while racing for the lead with six laps to go. Majeski, running on the inside of Smith, slid up the track and clipped Smith’s truck. Both hit the wall. That put Enfinger in the lead.

Smith finished 20th. Majeski placed 30th.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Grant Enfinger

STAGE 2 WINNER: Stewart Friesen

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Grant Enfinger’s victory is his fourth top 10 in the last five races. … Carson Hocevar’s fourth-place finish is his fourth consecutive top-five result. … Stewart Friesen’s third-place finish moved him into a playoff spot with four races left in the regular season. … Matt DiBenedetto‘s sixth-place finish is his third consecutive top 10. … Jesse Love finished ninth in his series debut.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Ty Majeski had a chance to take the points lead with series leader Corey Heim out because of illness, but Majeski’s 30th-place finish after running at the front most of the day, leaves him behind Heim. … Hailie Deegan finished 32nd after contact sent her truck into the wall hard. … After finishing a career-high third last week at Charlotte, Dean Thompson placed 34th Saturday due to an engine issue.

NEXT: The series races June 23 at Nashville Superspeedway (8 p.m. ET on FS1)

Xfinity starting lineup at Portland: Sheldon Creed wins pole


Sheldon Creed scored his first career Xfinity Series pole by taking the top spot for Saturday’s race at Portland International Raceway.

Creed, making his 50th career series start, earned the pole with a lap of 95.694 mph on the 1.97-mile road course.

MORE: Portland Xfinity starting lineup

Cole Custer will start second with a lap of 95.398 mph. He is followed by Josh Berry (94.242 mph), John Hunter Nemechek (95.127) and Charlotte winner Justin Allgaier (94.897). Road racing specialist Jordan Taylor, driving for Kaulig Racing, qualified sixth at 94.772 mph.

The green flag is scheduled to wave 4:46 p.m. ET Saturday on FS1.