Thursday, September 15, 2011

After an adventurous night, Junior clinches spot in the Chase

Boy, what would we have done without drama surrounding Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Chase chances Saturday night?

Going into the Wonderful Pistachios 400 at Richmond, Junior's Chase scenario was simple: any finish above 20th guaranteed him a spot in the Chase.

However, a 16th-place finish that involves three Lucky Dog awards is never simple. But yes, Earnhardt is officially in the Chase.

"Yeah, I'm proud to be in the Chase," Junior said. "I feel like I'm a good enough driver to be in the Chase, my team is good enough to be there.� As a group I think we're good enough to be in the top 10, and I can look back over the season and just easily think of several instances where we cost ourselves 10 or 15 points and made this situation difficult this weekend."

After being involved in Clint Bowyer's crash on Lap 3, Junior's car ended up with a giant dent on the front bumper after he was pushed into Bowyer's car. After that, the handling quickly went away on Junior's car and the front end damage got worse when he�got into Marcos Ambrose. As the caution-filled race finally had a long stretch of green flag racing, Junior went a lap down for the first time.

He then went a lap down again. And dumped Travis Kvapil after Kvapil got into him. And then got the Lucky Dog on the next caution, when Jimmie Johnson wrecked Kurt Busch.

And then the cycle repeated itself a final time.

During the middle of the race, Junior had fallen all the way down to 27th while Brad Keselowski drove his way up to second. That meant that Junior's cushion was down to a measly three points over Keselowski. But Keselowski faded and Junior (relatively) surged over the final 100 laps.

"Brad had to run his ass off to win the race, to run in the top 5 to make it tough on us.� He almost did that, but I felt good.� I knew my team could fix the car good enough, and if everything felt the right way for us as far as them cautions and getting them lucky dogs, getting an opportunity to work on the car, we'd be fine," Junior said.

But let's be honest here, scrappy 16th-place finishes don't win championships. And Junior and crew chief Steve Letarte know it. Sure, the setups have been conservative to help keep Junior in the top 10 (barely), but Junior's highest finish over the last 10 races is a ninth at Pocono.

"We've got to run a different setup than what we ran tonight in the last six weeks frankly," Junior said. " But we had a pretty good run at it going the first 15 races, and for whatever reason we sort of fell off and forgot some things or over?engineered something.� But we need to look hard at what we're doing, what we've been doing, sort of a pattern, find something within what we're trying to maybe harness or hampering our ability to drive the cars as well as I want to drive them."

While the night could have stayed south, the No. 88 bunch did what they've come to do best throughout the course of the�race and salvaged something. But those somethings have to become exceptional very soon if the No. 88 bunch is going to be a serious championship threat.


Shaun Phillips Steven Jackson Strong safety Tony Gonzalez

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