And while you'd be hard-pressed to consider a third-place finish a "win," if you're a fan of Dale Earnhardt Jr., you've got to be smiling from ear to ear right about now. (No jokes about teeth or lack thereof in that smile, promise.)
When four of the projected top six Chasers — Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth — ran out of gas on the final lap of the Geico 400 at Chicagoland, Dale Earnhardt Jr. found himself rocketing upward in the Chase standings as competitors dropped all around him. One third-place finish, and suddenly the guy who couldn't find a top-10 finish this summer with a GPS and a hunting dog is sitting in fifth place in the Chase standings. Thank heaven for points resets, huh?
After the race, Earnhardt conceded he was the beneficiary of good fortune, and noted that his own car was starting to run out of fuel in turn 4. "We wouldn't have made it another lap," he said.
You can't really call the performance of Earnhardt — or, for that matter, the first- and second-place finishers of Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick — that much more dominant than the guys who ran out of gas; they calculated a bit better and saved a bit better, but didn't necessarily drive better. Still, this is a time when it pays to be both lucky and good.
"I felt like we would do well in the Chase," he said. "These are good tracks for me ... I felt we would rebound and kind of return to the form we started at the beginning of the year."
It's a long way to Homestead, and Junior's recent history doesn't inspire confidence that he'll be able to sustain this fortune. But he's got one good race under his belt, and that gives him room to breathe in a way that guys like Kyle Busch and Gordon can't. After one week, that's far more than anyone could have expected.
- Kyle Busch