Junior's Chase hopes go up in smoke -- again

9/9/2007 - NASCAR

RICHMOND, Va. -- The 12 drivers who will compete for the Chase for the Nextel Cup over the next 10 weeks were all smiles late Saturday night as they lined up for pictures on the stage at Richmond International Raceway.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was not among them.

He was standing in the garage outside his car that blew an engine with six laps remaining, explaining how a season that began with the hope of winning a championship and becoming part owner of the company his father built went awry.

Earnhardt finished the race 30th after running in the top five most of the last 200 laps, leaving him 198 points behind Kevin Harvick for the 12th and final spot in the Chase.

That meant no shot at a title in his last hurrah for Dale Earnhardt Inc. before leaving for Hendrick Motorsports in 2008.

That meant that, for the second time in three years, NASCAR's most popular driver would be on the outside looking in when the series moves to New Hampshire International Speedway next weekend.

But Earnhardt, like the 12 headed for the Chase, did have reason to smile.

He knew that he'd given it all the past month and a half, and that he'd be preparing for a trip to New York City to celebrate making the Chase had he not blown three engines in the last seven races with top-5 cars.

Crew chief Tony Eury Jr. knew it, too, calling Earnhardt a champion as he gave him a big bear hug before disappearing into the night.

"I'm just upset for my team, Tony Jr. being a leader and the rest of them guys," Earnhardt said. "They worked so hard all year long. I'm just disappointed for them that we didn't make the Chase.

"I'm upset for the fans because I wanted to keep it interesting. Those guys pay a lot of money to come see us race."

Earnhardt never really had a chance Saturday, needing to win the race and have Harvick finish 34th or worse to overcome a 128-point deficit.

Harvick finished seventh, keeping Earnhardt in sight most of the night.

That didn't keep Earnhardt from trying. He was thinking of nothing less than winning before his engine expired.

"[Expletive] A," he said as a puff of smoke came from his hood.

Eury dropped his head, ripped off his headset and headed for the garage, looking even more frustrated than Earnhardt.

"It just started locking up on the back straightaway," Earnhardt said. "We were having a great race there for second with Tony [Stewart]. I was having a whole lot of fun up there racing with him and [Jeff] Gordon. I thought at the end we had a good enough car that if we could get past Tony we could have raced [winner Jimmie Johnson] a little bit.

"It's really frustrating. I'll get over it, but my guys worked hard all weekend. To see it go up in smoke like that, they're really disappointed."

With Earnhardt out of the Chase, Steve Hmiel, the technical director at DEI, will step down from his role as spotter to be around the garage to help Martin Truex Jr. in the Chase.

T.J. Majors, who is the spotter for JR Motorsports' No. 88 Busch Series team, will spot for Earnhardt in the final 10 races.

But Earnhardt won't stop trying to win.

"It would be really foolish and uncharacteristic for my team to sort of skip along the rest of the year and ride it out," he said.

Earnhardt seemed relaxed before the race as he sat in the back of the drivers' meeting. Harvick, who has avoided media interviews all week, appeared uptight and nervous.

"He's got a right to be uptight," Eury said before the race. "And the 2 [Kurt Busch] should, too."

Eury said he'd never felt so relaxed before a big event.

"Kind of like Appalachian State playing Michigan," he said. "I've got everything to gain and nothing to lose."

Max Siegel, the president of global operations who was the key negotiator trying to keep Earnhardt from leaving DEI, was impressed with how the team handled adversity and distractions and remained in contention to the end.

At no time did he sense Earnhardt treating this like a lame-duck situation.

"I've been blown away by his dedication to the team and winning," Siegel said.

Earnhardt definitely was dedicated to winning Saturday. He started 21st and had moved up a spot when the first caution came out on Lap 10. Harvick had gone from 13th to ninth.

"These COT races don't have too many cautions," Earnhardt told Eury. "Don't plan your strategy in that direction."

Earnhardt pitted for the first time after caution flew again on Lap 26. But instead of the much-needed perfect stop, he had to back up after being blocked by the car in front of him and restarted 25th to Harvick's eighth.

He was 13th, eight spots behind Harvick, when caution flew again on Lap 64. That time, he restarted 10th, four spots behind Harvick.

The two were separated by only two spots -- Earnhardt 13th and Harvick 11th -- when caution came out again on Lap 133. They emerged with Earnhardt eight spots back in 19th.

"What the [expletive] is going on!" Earnhardt yelled. "What the [expletive] is going on!"

"I'll find out," Eury said.

Earnhardt passed Harvick for 10th place on Lap 152 but remained critical of his car.

"It's turning, but it's still not good," he said.

Twenty-three laps later, Earnhardt radioed to Eury, "It's not your setup. The COT, what a piece of crap."

Earnhardt and Harvick were seventh and eighth when Clint Bowyer spun out while getting into the side of Denny Hamlin on Lap 201. By then, Earnhardt was feeling somewhat optimistic about his chances.

"Whatever changes you made on the last stop made it better," Earnhardt radioed Eury.

Earnhardt was fourth -- Harvick sixth -- when caution came out again on Lap 234. He restarted second behind Jeff Gordon, 11 spots ahead of the man he was chasing.

Then came the most dramatic moment of the night. Before the field completed a lap, Ryan Newman spun out, collecting Penske Racing teammate Busch and Juan Pablo Montoya.

Harvick went through the grass to avoid the collision and came out with steam coming out of the engine.

"The 29 looks like a choo-choo train," said Eury, who will follow Earnhardt to HMS next season.

NASCAR stopped the race for eight minutes and eight seconds, which some might have considered an omen for the driver of the No. 8. Earnhardt stayed relaxed, spending part of the delay talking about how he was going to spend Sunday afternoon watching the NFL.

"I'm just going to chill and watch the Redskins," he said. "I think they're going to whip Miami."

Earnhardt was so pumped when the race resumed under caution that he complained about the pace car being too slow.

When the green flag flew with 150 laps remaining, he was second and Harvick 29th, cutting the margin between them to 46 points and creating at least a glimmer of hope for all the fans who cheered him loudly during prerace introductions.

The gap was back to 86 points when a five-car crash brought out the second red-flag situation with 105 laps remaining. Earnhardt had dropped to fourth and Harvick was up to 15th before the 19-minute delay.

The race resumed with 101 laps remaining and Earnhardt in fourth and Harvick 18th.

"One lap short [of having enough gas to finish], but I ain't worried about it," Eury said.

The gas situation ceased to become a problem when Earnhardt pitted with the rest of the leaders with 63 laps remaining. He was third and Harvick 11th when the race resumed with 59 laps to go, but caution came out immediately when John Andretti's car blew an engine on the restart.

By then, it really didn't matter. Eleven cars were at least 20 laps down or off the track, and Harvick began the day needing to finish only 32nd to secure a spot.

Earnhardt moved to second shortly after the restart, and he became engaged in a good side-by-side battle with future HMS teammate Gordon for a couple of laps.

But the drama, at least that of Earnhardt's battle to make the Chase, was gone.

"Ain't no reason to get all upset or bent out of shape about anything because there's cooler stuff right around the corner," Earnhardt said. "There's all kinds of things to be excited about. I'm not just talking about next year. I'm saying every day.

"We'll have fun and laugh and enjoy ourselves the rest of the season. Congratulations to the guys that made the Chase. Hopefully, we can win some races in the last 10 to put a period on what's been an up-and-down season."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.