By Reid Spencer
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- A nine-position difference in the standings can make a world of difference to a driver's attitude, as Dale Earnhardt Jr. knows only too well.
Last year, Earnhardt came to Watkins Glen International 10th in the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings, clinging to the final guaranteed spot in the Chase.
This year, he's the series leader, and as an all-but-certain Chase qualifier, his approach to Sunday's Finger Lakes 355 road-course race at the Glen is radically different.
"Coming in here in 10th place, just trying to hang on to the spot in the Chase is really, really tough -- especially for someone like myself who is more cold than hot at this place," Earnhardt said Friday at the Glen. "I'm really happy about being in a position where now we are able to come here.
"We had a good test (at Road Atlanta). We're feeling positive about our chances of having a good run. We'll just be able to go out there and try to compete. There's really no pressure. So that's a good thing. That's a good feeling."
Rather than worry about protecting his place in the Chase, Earnhardt can afford to take risks as he tries to accumulate bonus points for the Chase. Each victory before the Chase is worth three extra points to start the postseason.
"We can forget about (making) the Chase for the moment, concentrate on being fast," Earnhardt said. "Concentrate on what we're doing this weekend, next weekend, really look at the particulars and try to find more speed."
Earnhardt said his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team made impressive gains during last week's road-course test at Road Atlanta. He'll need that extra edge to keep his points lead -- Earnhardt's average finish in 12 starts at WGI is 22.2. His best result in the last six years was 15th in 2011.
A TRUE MECHANICAL BULL
According to defending Watkins Glen winner Marcos Ambrose, a Cup car can get downright ornery on a road course.
Though Ambrose is perhaps the best in the series at negotiating a course with right and left turns, he compares driving a 3,400-pound, 900-horsepower Cup car to trying to ride an unpredictable bull.
"You're trying to ride a bull and keep it somewhat under control," Ambrose said. "The car is really powerful, and it wants to buck and kick and throw you off every corner, and you've just got to manage that. You've got to really control the brutality of the Sprint Cup car."
For one thing, there's a lot more going on inside the car than there is at a typical oval race.
"You've got a lot more braking and technique on the brakes as well trying to keep the car from locking the tires up and downshifting, looking after the gearbox, looking after the car," Ambrose said. "I don't think anyone who has raced a car or has watched car racing can fully appreciate how difficult these Sprint Cup cars are to get around a road course.
"They're just really heavy, really powerful with not enough brakes and not enough downforce. The tire that we have on the car is very small compared to the weight we carry, and that's what makes our sport so great. Whether it's road racing or Bristol or Michigan, it's man versus machine, and it's a tough battle out there. It's really satisfying when it goes well and not so satisfying when it goes wrong -- and it could go wrong in a hurry."
Intermittent showers delayed Friday's Sprint Cup practice, but when the cars finally took to the track at around 4:30 p.m. ET, Kurt Busch paced the session with a lap at 125.055 mph. Ryan Newman was second fastest at 124.406 mph. ... Denny Hamlin hit a patch of oil at the bottom of the esses -- the result of Patrick Long's blown engine -- and wrecked during practice. He'll start Sunday's race in a backup car but won't have to go to the rear because the crash took place before qualifying, which is scheduled for Saturday. Jeff Burton also hit the oil, piled into Hamlin and likewise went to a backup.