Junior's Chase hopes all but finished
INDIANAPOLIS -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. may have been pushed out of the Nextel Cup chase Sunday.
Already a long shot to qualify for the season-ending 10-race shootout, Earnhardt's chances took another major hit when Mike Skinner tapped him in the back, knocked him into the wall and sent him bouncing off three other cars during a restart at the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard.
Earnhardt's race -- and probably his shot at a 2005 Cup title -- ended after 63 laps. He finished 43rd.
"It's gonna take something extraordinary to make the chase at this point, this far behind now,"' he said outside the infield medical center.
Earnhardt trailed leader Jimmie Johnson by 537 points entering Sunday's race and needed a strong finish just to challenge Dale Jarrett for the 10th and final qualifying spot in the standings.
(unofficial through Sept. 4)
|2. (+1)||Greg Biffle||-209|
|3. (-1)||Jimmie Johnson||-258|
|6. (+1)||Kurt Busch||-456|
|7. (-1)||Jeremy Mayfield||-497|
|9. (+2)||Matt Kenseth||-631|
|10. (+2)||Jamie McMurray||-641|
Instead, Earnhardt lost more ground. His second early exit this year dropped him to 16th and left him 627 points behind new points leader Tony Stewart. He trails Carl Edwards, now 10th, by 191 points.
For Earnhardt, it was just another chapter in what easily been his most trying season. NASCAR's most popular driver in 2003 and '04 has been jeered by fans and criticized by his most loyal supporter, uncle Tony Eury Sr., his former crew chief.
And the problems on the track have gotten even worse. Earnhardt has just one win and eight top-10 finishes in 21 starts, and has struggled since swapping crews with teammate Michael Waltrip before the season started. In May, he fired new crew chief Pete Rondeau.
But in the past few weeks, Earnhardt appeared to be rallying. He finished third at Daytona, won at Chicago and was ninth in New Hampshire.
Sunday proved a more typical race. After finishing 32nd at Pocono Raceway two weeks ago, Earnhardt never got it right in Indianapolis. He qualified 27th and dropped to 36th after 57 laps.
Earnhardt knew he was in trouble even earlier.
"We can't bring cars like this to the racetrack and you know I knew when the race started, man, it was going to be a miracle to get a top 10 with that car," he said. "As long as we bring cars like that to the track, that's the way we're gonna finish."
Skinner's push exacerbated his problems.
On the fourth restart, Earnhardt drove down the front straightaway in a single-file line. With cars in front of him starting and slowing, Skinner turned Earnhardt sideways and into the inside wall. Earnhardt bounced off it, hit the outside wall and ran into two other cars, including one driven by teammate Martin Truex Jr.
Earnhardt's crew, knowing the predicament, worked frantically in Gasoline Alley to repair the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet. They cut off the pieces of damaged sheet metal, pulled off the mangled radiator and were ready to replace the hood and rear bumper when they finally made the decision Earnhardt had already resigned himself to.
"I just hope I don't have to get into that today. Hopefully, I can go home," he said. "If we make the Chase, we make it. If we don't, we don't. We'll still try to win some races before the year is out."
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press
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