The Racing Capital
of the World
September 26, 2013 | By Bruce Martin
Matt Kenseth is on a roll by winning the first two races of NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship. But time is running out for Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Fan favorite Earnhardt is in 11th place out of the 13 drivers that are eligible for this year’s Sprint Cup title and is 62 points behind Kenseth. The only drivers in worse position than Earnhardt are Joey Logano, 62 points out of the lead and Kasey Kahne, 71 points out.
After two races, there are only two drivers within reasonable reach of Kenseth. His Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch is second, 14 points out, and five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is 18 points behind the lead. Every driver from fourth place back is 36 points or more behind Kenseth.
As Earnhardt heads to Dover Downs International Speedway for the AAA 400 on Sunday, his only hope to stay in contention probably is winning. But even he realizes his hopes are dwindling.
“Well, we’re just going to have to work hard,” Earnhardt said. “Our chances aren't looking that great because the guys ahead of us are winning races. They've had a pretty strong couple weeks to start off The Chase.
“But don't give up, keep working. If we can win a couple races, no matter what happens in the championship that will improve the results of our season and give us a lot to be happy about. So it would be great to go ahead and go to Dover and get that done. But we're trying every week. I thought we were pretty aggressive this weekend trying to get ourselves in position to win. Ended up with a pretty good result. Couple things go a little bit different, and I think we get a shot at Matt and give ourselves a better opportunity to get the win.”
Earnhardt has one win (September 2001), five top-five and nine top-10 finishes in 27 starts at Dover. He was 11th in this race last year and 10th in the first race at Dover this season.
This season Earnhardt is winless with five top-fives, 15 top-10s and three DNFs (did not finish).
“It's good to be able to look back on Sunday and feel like we had potential,” Earnhardt said. “If we can be as aggressive as we were this past Sunday on pit strategy and many different things, just going after the setup of the car and working real hard on Saturday trying to prepare the car for the race, I think we can put ourselves in position more often with just a few races left.”
Although it is a long shot for Earnhardt to win the 2013 Sprint Cup, a few wins in the final eight races of the season would end on a high note. But the pragmatic Earnhardt doesn’t believe that momentum would carry to 2014.
“There are so many changes in the offseason,” Earnhardt said. “We’re always looking with the new car; you're looking at higher potential that there will be changes in the offseason and lot of new things to learn, lot of new things to sort of science out. Really, if we just win races, it just vindicates the work we do and gives yourself confidence that you can do the job. Helps you understand where your team is and what things you can fix and change to get better before the next year.
“So I think as far as it carrying over to next year, I think we're going to really see some changes in the offseason on how the rules are with the car, maybe some things might happen. I think enough is going to change in the offseason that it will be almost like kind of having to start over a little bit next year as far as learning what works and what doesn't work.
“Either way, I feel pretty good with that. We have a good organization that can start from scratch and make some things happen.”
There is little doubt that Earnhardt is the most popular driver in NASCAR despite the lack of success he has achieved in recent seasons. Earnhardt fans stand by their man whether he wins or not.
But winning would be a tremendous boost for the son of seven-time NASCAR Cup champion and 1995 Brickyard 400 winner Dale Earnhardt.
“We started the year out strong,” Earnhardt said. “If we could have beaten Carl Edwards out in that last pit stop in Phoenix, we thought we could have won that race. We had a string of good finishes, and we were leading the points in the first five or six races of the year. I feel like we really applied ourselves and adapted to the new car pretty quickly.
“Now that everybody else has sort of caught up, and even surged ahead in some areas, you're seeing Matt have an awesome year, and it looks like Joe Gibbs Racing is having a better year, performance-wise, all around. Some teams at Roush Fenway are starting to find some competitiveness. Just as the season has gone on, things have evened out a whole lot more.”
With Kenseth, Busch and Johnson off to strong starts in The Chase, the other 10 drivers could make some bold strategy gambles in the upcoming races to get back into the game.
But Earnhardt doesn’t see it that way.
“I wouldn't say it changes the strategy,” Earnhardt said. “You look at your position in the Chase and you see, ‘All right, we're way behind.’ We've got ourselves off to a terrible start in Chicago. So we don't really need to try to string together decent finishes. That's not going to do much for us. We're behind so far that trying to be consistent and just rattle off top 10s if we can, there is no moral victory there. We can gamble on tire strategy and get off sequence in the race and try to make it work for you and get to victory lane.
“Now we do that all year long, really. The regular season is long enough to where you can be pretty risky and have a couple go your way and couple go against you and still be OK points-wise and not really work your way out of the Chase by getting too crazy on the strategy.
“But in the Chase, obviously you want to win all the races like Matt Kenseth is doing. But if you just run smart and run as hard as you can, obviously, and try to finish as good as you can, like Kyle, for example. He's hanging around, and that's going to pay off. If Matt makes a mistake or has trouble similar to the way me and the 22 (Joey Logano) had in Chicago, Kyle's consistency and Jimmie's, as well, will bode well for them, and that will put them in position to take advantage of Matt's bad luck.
“So you want to be consistent if you can, but if you start off like we did, you just kind of throw it all out the window and try to get a trophy or two before the season's out.”
Although Kenseth has gotten off to a very impressive start of The Chase, Earnhardt believes there is much more drama that can happen and that Kenseth’s strong start could encounter some bumps. That’s when drivers further back in the points can gain on the leader.
“There is a lot of racing left,” Earnhardt said. “There are eight races … that's a lot of racing and a lot of potential for good luck and bad luck to be shared by everybody. I'm certain Matt and his team are going to try real hard to be smart and continue on the success that they've had. But nobody's immune to someone else's mistake or something reaching out and altering the way the race is going for them.
“Even Matt, as strong as they've been, something could happen to those guys, and it may not be something of their own doing. That's why everybody in the series just continues to work hard because you don't know what's going to happen. Fortune or misfortune could be around the corner.”
And at some point Kenseth will feel the pressure of being the driver that is being pursued in a championship battle.
“We're only two races into this thing and a lot of tough competition in the Chase, and nobody's going to make it very easy on Matt,” Earnhardt said. “I think the larger his lead gets, I think more of a bull’s eye the guy gets on him and the tougher competition tends to race you. He can expect things to be pretty competitive going forward.”