One chance: Tonight marks Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final opportunity to make playoffs

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RICHMOND, Va. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn’t dealing with fairy tales as he looks ahead to tonight’s race at Richmond Raceway.

The sport’s most popular driver — winless in his last 44 starts — must win to be eligible to contend for a championship in his final full-time Cup season.

“If we had to line-up and race,’’ Earnhardt said Friday afternoon, “I think we’ve got about a sixth- to 12th-place car.

“We could run a fast lap that was a top-10 lap in the first two practices in race trim. After about 30 laps, we were behind the Penske guys on speed and we were behind all the Toyotas on speed by a tenth (of a second) or two. Our teammates don’t look any better. So, I don’t know that we can look in that direction to lean on those guys too much.

“We tried some things in the second practice that won’t get us front-end speed, but we did some things that I think will help our car on the long run. We’ve got to just hope that’s going to work for us in the race.’’

If it does, Earnhardt will follow in the path of Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, who each qualified for the playoffs in their final full-time seasons in Cup.

If not, then Earnhardt will have 10 races left in a Cup career that has seen him win 26 series races, including two Daytona 500s, and finish in the top five in points three times.

As he gets closer to his final Cup race, he is being asked to reflect more on his career. Friday, he was asked how he wanted to be remembered as a driver.

“I hope that people thought I was good and had some talent,’’ Earnhardt said. “Doesn’t matter to me where on the scale I rank, I just hope people credit me with having some ability.  

“I hope they see me as someone that raced my competitors with respect. That I raced hard, but with respect. There are guys out there that I enjoy racing against, and I hope that is the way people view me, my competitors at least. It’s a big body of work. Looking over my Xfinity races and all the Cup races, I think there is a lot to chew on there and a lot of substance. 

“I feel pretty confident that I made a good impact on the race track as a driver – visually and on paper. Definitely enjoyed a lot of years. There were some bad ones, but I don’t know a lot of drivers that haven’t had some down years. I feel really, really lucky that I had a chance to rebound from that. I didn’t know if we would make it back to victory lane but we got ourselves righted and we won a few more races over the last several years. I think I am a pretty good race car driver, and I hope that people acknowledge that part of it.”

If Earnhardt wins tonight, he would rank it among his top victories in a career that has seen him win in the first Cup race after 9/11 and the first Cup race at Daytona after his father’s death in the 2001 Daytona 500.

“It would be one of the biggest top-five wins of my career if we were to do that considering the circumstances of win and get in and we’d be in the playoffs and all that good stuff,’’ Earnhardt said.“So, that would be fun.’’

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