Junior setting pressure aside as he tries to make Chase
If Dale Earnhardt Jr. is to shake a repeat of last season's vexing 19th-place points finish, he'll have to stand up to his historical weaknesses and grind out a reversal of fortune.
But that's OK. Despite the obvious resources, not a lot has come easy to the son of racing royalty. Junior has made a career out of ignoring improbability and deciding to succeed anyway. This weekend, he'll set off to do it once more. This time, at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Junior has finished 43rd for two weeks in a row and spiralled from third to 11th in the standings, one spot shy of where he needs to be six races from now in order to qualify for the Chase for the Nextel Cup title. Desperately in need of a turnaround, Junior and Co. head, of course, to a track where he finished dead last in 2005.
Junior remains undeterred.
"We've been pretty strong at some tracks this year where we haven't shown much in the past," the driver of the No. 8 Chevy said. "I have a feeling we're going to do the same at Indy."
He's got reason to believe so. He posted fast times during his test session at the Brickyard last month, confident enough with his car that the crew decided to end the session early when rain threatened the area.
"We've had two terrible results, but you can't dwell on it," Junior said. "What can you do? You have to put it behind you and look forward. We can't afford any more mistakes or finishes like that, but I have a team that's capable of coming back. We had the quickest car on our test day at Indy, so we feel pretty confident we're going in there with a setup that can run up front."
Which is where he needs to finish if he wants to secure a top-10 spot over the next half-dozen events. Right now, fewer than 100 points separate 12th place from seventh place. There is little breathing room, and that's especially frightening for someone in the middle of a run of bad luck.
"I'm more aggressive and up on the [tachometer] more, not giving as much room and not as kind as maybe I would be the first 10 races of the season," Junior said. "It gets very aggressive out there. We don't have any cushion in the points, we have to go out and fight for every 10th of a second, fight for every spot each lap."
And in the meantime, he said he's putting everything else out of his mind. Not easy to do when you feel the pressure from sponsors who don't want to be on the outside looking in during the Chase again. And then there's the fans -- not so much with the negativity, but laying it on pretty thick with the palpable vibe of desperation to see their guy win a title.
But somehow, Junior has always been able to block out the background noise. He took over his daddy's Busch Series ride after its first successful season, when Steve Park won rookie of the year honors in the car. Junior knew he was under intense scrutiny, but he managed to win titles in his first two full Busch seasons, anyway.
When he got the call to race Cup, he was brought in with so much fanfare that many believed even a successful rookie couldn't live up to the hype. Then, he finally emerged as a contender on the scene. It was in the same year that his father died. Junior raced on, for the first time finishing among the top 10 in the big leagues.
"He can overcome that," crew chief Tony Eury Jr. said, "he can overcome anything."
Now, he's staring at the possibility of missing a consecutive Chase in the face. Bad luck has come at an inopportune time, late in the season when there's a paper-thin points margin for bubble teams. There is a very real possibility Junior could be on the sidelines for a second year watching 10 other drivers vie for the title, particularly when you consider that he has mediocre track records at the next couple of venues on the schedule (averages of worse than 21st at Indy and, with Watkins Glen International's road course up afterward, worse than 20th on road courses).
But Junior is unfazed.
"I just don't think about it," he said. "There are a lot worse things you could be going through than trying to make the Chase for a championship. Just imagine somebody dealing with something worse than you are and to be thankful for the opportunity to even have the chance to race for the Chase. It's an honor to be part of this sport and part of this series.
"I don't feel a lot of pressure. I know my fans and a lot of people want to see me succeed, and we try really hard, but I see people who really make themselves miserable and it's a shame."
After all, why fret when everything that can be done to win a title is being done?
"I'd feel pressure if I was on a mediocre team, but I'm not," he said. "I feel like we've got one of the best teams in the garage, and we're still in a good position to finish in the top 10, and we also happen to be running well. If we weren't a top-10, top-15 team every week, then I'd be worried. Then I'd feel the pressure."
Rupen Fofaria is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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