Always popular, Dale Earnhardt Jr. now also relevant in Chase for the Championship

JOLIET, Ill. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. doesn't like to talk about himself, doesn't open up much when asked about his father and refuses to look too far down the road when it comes to this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

But …

"It's there for the taking."

There is no question this year's version of NASCAR's playoff is as wide open as ever. Denny Hamlin arrives as the No. 1 seed despite an inconsistency that borders on schizophrenia; Jeff Gordon is seeded last, yet his run up to the Chase reads like this: third, second, second.

In between there is the Vegas favorite (Jimmie Johnson), the regular-season points leader (Greg Biffle) and the up-and-comer (Brad Keselowski).

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Earnhardt fits into the middle of this mix, and not in a why-the-hell-not sort of way. He's won a race, led the points standings and has ranked in the top five every week of the season but one.

"I think this is the best chance I've ever had," he said Friday at Chicagoland Speedway, site of Race No. 1 in this year's Chase. "Even more than in 2004."

Ahh, 2004, the first year of the Chase and the last time Earnhardt seriously contended for a title. He was smack dab in the middle of the championship mix, especially after winning at Talladega in October, a victory that pushed him into the points lead. Then he told a TV audience, "It don't mean [expletive]," citing his dad's 10 victories at Talladega as the benchmark.

It was a raw, unscripted moment, but one NASCAR felt it couldn't overlook. The governing body docked Earnhardt 25 points for the curse word, knocking him from first to second in the standings. He hung tough for another couple of weeks, but a wreck at Martinsville pushed him out of contention for good.

"The popularity of this sport is based on colorful personalities and the fact that everyone can relate to these drivers and their emotions," Richie Gilmore, Dale Earnhardt Inc.'s director of competition at the time, said after NASCAR handed down the penalty. "Now, it seems like that's a detriment."

In the years since, the sport has wrestled with that slippery slope of personality vs. politesse, and to some degree has paid a price for it. Johnson dominated the rest of the decade, yet still failed to capture the imagination of the NASCAR diehards or a curious public largely because of a made-for-TV Emily Post act he felt compelled to follow in order to appease the guys footing the bill, namely sponsors.

No one likes a fake – or respects one – and that's sort of what NASCAR and its starched white button-downs with sponsor logos on the breast pocket has become.

This is part of why Earnhardt remains so popular, despite a swoon that lasted the better part of eight years. He's a throwback to the time when NASCAR was real, and not just because of his last name. He talks with a southern twang, something not many drivers do anymore, isn't too impressed with himself and pretty much says what he thinks.

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But being real doesn't mean you're relevant, and Junior certainly hasn't been relevant much since that victory at Talladega. That win was his fifth of 2004; he's won just five races since, never more than one in a single season.

"Looking back on that year, I didn't realize how close we could have came or how good that chance was," he said. "We had a strong team; one of the two strongest teams that year for sure."

But, he said, "I think we're a more complete team now.

"There's no dominant figure in [this year's Chase] that stands out, and that really boosts our confidence that it's there for the taking," he continued. "And if we can put it together and put together consistent weeks, week in and week out, win a couple races, we can be the champion, no question about it."

The path to his first title won't be paved with race wins, but a steady dose of top fives and top 10s, which is what he's delivered as much as anyone this season.

If – and it's a big if – he emerges as champion, it won't be the boost to top-tier status NASCAR continues to search for. The left-turn jokers are still going to tell left-turn jokes and the sport is still going to have a wide swath shaking their heads in bewilderment.

But what it will do is fire up the base, and this being an election year, we've come to learn that's no small thing.

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