Earnhardt a big question mark entering the Chase

JOLIET, Ill. – After a few-month hiatus, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is back to being the butt of jokes.

Kevin Harvick used him as a punch line on Thursday, saying drivers for Hendrick Motorsports do things routinely to keep Junior "on the lead lap." Friday, NASCAR president Mike Helton was asked about the perception that NASCAR plays favorites, particularly when it comes to Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"How's that worked out so far?" Helton responded.

Helton was trying to make a point, not taking a dig at Junior. In this case, one necessitated the other.

Still, the reality is that in the rundown of contenders in this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, which begins Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, Earnhardt's name falls around 12th in the 12-driver field.

How can you win a championship when you haven't won a race since 2008? When you haven't had a top-five finish since April? When you haven't cracked the top 10 in more than a month?

Just three months ago, Earnhardt appeared on the verge of a revival. He'd racked up five top 10s in the first eight races of the season, and after a sixth-place finish at Pocono in June he was just 10 points out of first place in the standings.

At the time, I went as far as to declare him a potential championship contender.

So how did it come to be that he nearly missed the Chase?

It started with a wreck, followed by a punctured radiator, then a flat tire. From there, Earnhardt became a 15th-place driver – literally. He finished 14th, 15th or 16th in six of the eight races leading into the Chase.

"There's a number of races between June and now that if we would have been able to minimize our mistakes, we wouldn't have had nothing to worry about at Richmond [the final race of the regular season]," he explained. "We would have been locked in.

"And we have run poorly," he continued. "I'm not covering that up. [But] for the most part, we've had a pretty fast car every week."

And now?

"I'm in the Chase, so I got a shot," Junior said Thursday at a media event to kick off this year's championship playoff.

That's more than he could say the past two seasons in which Earnhardt finished 21st and 25th, respectively, and missed the Chase altogether.

Yes, he's in the Chase, and yes, that means he has a shot. But a probable one? Well, the numbers say he does.

This season, the Series has already visited eight of the 10 tracks on the Chase schedule. Earnhardt has an average finish of 7.6 in those eight races (Phoenix, 10th; Martinsville, second; Texas, ninth; Talladega, fourth; Dover, 12th; Charlotte, seventh; Kansas, second; and New Hampshire, 15th). A 7.6 average likely won't be good enough to win the title – Jimmie Johnson won with a 6.2 average last season – but it would put him in the hunt.

"Everybody races hard all year long. Nobody really has anything sort of extra that they can bring to the Chase," Earnhardt explained. "You've pretty much seen everybody's hand at this point."

When applied to his performance in the two months leading into the Chase, that would eliminate Junior from contention. But if it means you'll bring what you brought earlier in the season, Junior shouldn't be counted out altogether.

On Thursday, I asked Junior if it bothered him that when talking about legit contenders to win this year's title, his name rarely, if ever, comes up.

"I feel like a bit of an underdog," he admitted. "That really doesn't motivate me. Fan support motivates me. My team working hard motivates me.

"I'm going in with the attitude that we have as good as chance as anybody," he continued. "You just never know. The opportunity is on the table. We're gonna try to make the most of it."

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