- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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Sitting seventh in points with seven races remaining in the Chase for the Nextel Cup, Dale Earnhardt Jr. could be entering panic mode. Could be, but isn't. Not by a long shot.
"I know every time we let something slip or have a mistake, even the ones we can't control, like the part failures, even when that happens, even though it wasn't in our control, those are the things that are hard to not take home with you."
-- Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Especially not while he's at Talladega Superspeedway, a track he once figuratively owned. Junior's not dominant at Talladega these days, but he knows that could change in an instant.
And with the "Big One" seemingly only a bobble away, he knows the points standings can look a whole lot different Sunday night than they do today.
"Jeff Burton's no superhero. He's not invincible," Earnhardt Jr. said of the points leader, whom he trails by 123 points. "He can have bad luck just like anybody else. Within one race, six or seven of us can be right back in it.
"There's a lot of racing left. If there's two races to go now, I'd sort of have the [sinking] feeling. But we got a lot of racing left and anything can happen to Jeff Burton or anybody else for that matter."
Burton certainly seems to understand the risks at Talladega.
"Talladega is probably the most nervous I am before a race," Burton said. "If you do this long enough, you have to understand the odds. The odds are there is going to be a big wreck at Talladega. The odds are every two or three races you'll end up being in one of those wrecks. So is it your turn? You kind of feel like you're playing Russian Roulette a little bit."
Earnhardt Jr. said he feels like he's got an "awesome" chance to catch Burton. At Kansas, he said, he gained a lot of points on everybody but Burton and Mark Martin. "I'm basically back in it, if you don't count Jeff," he said. "He could have a bad run any one of these races, and then we reel him back in."
Denny Hamlin is 69 points behind Burton in second place, meaning Earnhardt Jr. is just 54 points out of that spot. So he's right in saying things can still change in a big way. A 10th-place run at Kansas last week wasn't quite what he was looking for, but with some drivers gambling for fuel and finishing ahead of him, it was the best he could do.
Certainly he wants more than a 10th out of Talladega on Sunday, but if it doesn't happen, he won't mind being asked yet again what happened to Dale Earnhardt Inc.'s restrictor-plate dominance. Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart's Joe Gibbs Racing entry seem to have taken over at the plate races of late, but that's OK in Junior's eyes.
"There's only four plate races on the circuit. When we were dominant there, we got crap for not being good anywhere else," he said. "So I'd give it up to be running good at all these two-mile tracks like we have this year."
In 13 starts at Talladega, where his father reigned supreme for years, Earnhardt Jr. has five wins, but he hasn't been to Victory Lane since October 2004. And that win was best remembered for what came after he took the checkered flag.
Uttering a profanity when asked what the win meant in comparison to his father's record there, he was penalized 25 points and lost the Chase lead to Kurt Busch. After that, a broken rear-end gear at Martinsville and a late-race wreck at Atlanta ruined his title hopes.
The driver said the rear end never should have broken, and he blames himself for forcing the issue while racing with Carl Edwards at Atlanta. Now, after missing the Chase last year, Earnhardt Jr.'s looking to make up for lost time.
"I told my guys at Dover that you have to work really hard every time, that you have to give everything you got, because if you think you're going to walk right back into the Chase for the championship the following year, you can never tell when the one year you're in it might be your last," he said. " How many opportunities do you have? How many chances do you have? How many Chases are you going to be in? You know, you just have to go at it like it's your last chance.
"That's the way I feel about it. I know every time we let something slip or have a mistake, even the ones we can't control, like the part failures, even when that happens, even though it wasn't in our control, those are the things that are hard to not take home with you. I'm trying to work really hard and trying to motivate my guys this Chase, trying to get them pumped up and keep them pumped up so they'll be on their best on race day."
Some fans seem to think a championship is Earnhardt's birthright, given that his father claimed the Winston Cup seven times. A six-win season in '04 raised the expectations, but last year tempered things.
He's shown improvement this year but hasn't been dominant.
In some respects, a year in which he kicks the field's butt on numerous occasions would be as satisfying as a championship. At least that's how he feels at the moment.
"Winning is the fun part. The championship, the banquet is a lot of fun. But it's so late in the season, I think the thrill of winning that actual championship has subsided a small percentage by the time the banquet rolls around," Earnhardt said. "I don't know. I'd trade winning the championship for winning 10 races in a year, if that makes any sense."
He won't win 10 races this year, though, so the championship will do just fine.
And if there's a place to start a title run, it might as well be Talladega.
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. could be hitting the panic button, sitting in seventh place in the Chase. Heading to Talladega, that's hardly the case, writes Mark Ashenfelter.