Earnhardt Jr. already thinking about next year

Originally Published: August 25, 2005
Associated Press

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. is done talking about the points standings. In fact, he claims he hasn't even looked at them this week. In serious danger of missing the playoffs, Earnhardt has found the best strategy for him is to not even worry about it.

But should he get shut out, he doesn't want to be alone -- Earnhardt wants Jeff Gordon to miss the cut, too.

"I'm sorry, Jeff, but if I don't make it, I hope you don't either," Earnhardt said this week. "That way I am not the only one talking [about missing it]."

Misery loves company, and Earnhardt knows he's going to need some companionship if he's not racing for the Nextel Cup in NASCAR's 10-race playoff series. With three races left to qualify, Earnhardt is 16th in the standings -- 158 points out of the 10th and final qualifying spot.

Gordon is a little closer at 12th in the standings, only 58 points out of the cutoff spot.

If either is going to get into the Chase for the Nextel Cup, he'll need a strong run Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway. Earnhardt returns as the defending race champion, while Gordon has five career victories at the .533-mile bullring.

Gordon believes he's still got a chance to get in, saying, "You can't count us out. We could strike at any moment."

Earnhardt isn't as confident. He knows this year has been awful, the worst of his six Cup seasons. He's got just one win and has led only 17 laps this season.

A year ago at this time, Earnhardt was third in the standings, had led 587 laps and the Bristol victory was his fourth of the season.

But Earnhardt is tired of talking about stats and standings.

"I don't know if we can make it this year, I haven't even looked at the standings this week. Can you believe that?" he said. "I try not to focus on those things. It takes away from driving the car.

"Right now I am just looking forward to the rest of the season and obviously to next year."

It's not like Earnhardt has given up on this season, he's just weary of all the pressure he's been under.

There's an overwhelming perception in NASCAR that its playoff system will be a bust if Earnhardt and Gordon are locked out, and it led to a fast-spreading rumor this summer that a rule was being considered that would allow fans to vote one driver into the Chase.

Because Earnhardt is easily NASCAR's most popular driver, the alleged provision was thought to be designed specifically for him. It got so bad, NASCAR chairman Brian France had to address it.

"We have to be, and we will be, a performance-based series. You have to perform," France said. "You know what, the drivers … don't want to limp in on a fan vote. They want to earn their way in or not earn their way in."

Earnhardt himself has said repeatedly he would have no interest in gaining a free pass into the Chase.

"I wouldn't feel comfortable with that at all," he said. "What's the point in running all them races [36] if you're going to allow everybody else in? That's kind of crazy. Whether me and Jeff are in the Chase or not, I feel like there's personalities, teams and stories and there will be drama that will be more than satisfying for [the media] and the fans.

"The fact that we didn't make the Chase will be forgotten up until the next season starts."

It already seems as if Earnhardt is looking to next season, anyway. He said former crew chief Tony Eury Jr. stopped by his car last week at Michigan and helped his crew make some adjustments that Earnhardt said improved his No. 8 Chevrolet.

Now that Dale Earnhardt Inc. has signed Eury to a long-term contract extension, all signs are pointing to a reunion next season between the driver and crew chief. The two were separated at the end of last season because of their constant bickering -- the two are cousins -- and both have said the year apart helped strengthen the relationship.

Earnhardt is being coy about the future, but sounds as if Eury Jr. will be running his team next season.

"I'm not going to tell you, but I think everybody knows where we are headed and what we are going to do," he said. "I think it should get us back in Victory Lane a lot more often and at least up front leading laps."

For now, he's just concentrating on making it through this year. If Earnhardt somehow charges into the Chase, he'll be thrilled. If he fails, he'll move on.

"What can I do? I mean, dang, am I supposed to quit? Give it up?" he asked. "I've just got to come back and try again next year."

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press