Dale Earnhardt Jr. not a fan of The Glen
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. was sweating away with everybody else in the plaza outside his uptown nightclub on this steamy hot Tuesday afternoon. He was there promoting the upcoming night race at Bristol Motor Speedway, his favorite track in NASCAR.
Then the subject turned to Sunday's race at Watkins Glen International (1 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Earnhardt hates road course racing. He never aspired to drive on one as a kid when he dreamed of becoming a professional stock car driver like his father. He thinks they are a waste of time and don't really belong in the sport.
But he understands he'd better like this one.
It's a huge week for NASCAR's most popular driver. Get past The Glen with a decent finish, and his odds of making the Chase go up significantly.
Do what he's done the past five seasons at the 2.45-mile circuit, and he might need a win in one of the following four races to make the Chase -- and even that could be dicey with a few drivers around him at 10th in the standings already eligible for the wild card with a win.
Going in with a negative attitude won't help, and Earnhardt understands that, although it's not easy changing at age 36. Among his last words after Sunday's ninth-place finish at Pocono Raceway were that he hoped to go to The Glen and "steal a good finish."
That's not exactly a confident way of looking at it, but it's no different than the way Earnhardt talked after leaving the June road course race in Sonoma, Calif., with his car in a wrecked heap.
"I'm not a big fan of the place, but maybe one of these days," he said that day.
One of these days for Earnhardt needs to be now. He needs to forget his average finish at The Glen is 22.9 -- slightly worse than the 22.2 at Sonoma -- and that his average over the past five races there is a dreadful 29.4.
He needs to remember the positive thoughts he had after beating road course specialist Ron Fellows in a 1999 Nationwide Series race at The Glen, the positive thoughts he had after finishing third and fifth there in the 2003 and 2004 Cup races.
"I'm pushing myself pretty hard right now, but confidence helps," Earnhardt said as he leaned against the gold and white car he'll drive to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Bristol night race. "Anytime you go into a race weekend and you're not there confidence-wise, you set the tone for the rest of the weekend.
"Your results mirror what your expectations were, so you have to try to remind yourself to stay positive and be upbeat when the task at hand looks impossible or too difficult."
As you can see from Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s statistics at the last five tracks before the Chase is set, this weekend at Watkins Glen is huge:
|Track||W||Top 5s||Top 10s||Avg. Finish||Last Five Avg.|
Earnhardt didn't always stink at road courses. Just ask road course specialist Boris Said.
"The average finish doesn't tell the story," Said said, referring to engine failures and wrecks that made Earnhardt's average worse than it otherwise might be. "I think he's a good road racer. He's every bit as good as I am."
Earnhardt smiled when told of Said's comment. He appreciated it. He just didn't seem convinced it was true or that anybody else would believe it based on history.
"If I was to agree with him, there would be too many people calling horsesh-- on that," Earnhardt said. "He's just being nice. Everybody knows how talented Boris is, and I wish I had half the damn talent he had on a road course. I'd be real confident about getting a top-5 this weekend."
There goes that word again -- confidence. Earnhardt said it more during this 18-minute interview than he's maybe said it all season.
This is a product of being around new crew chief Steve Letarte, one of the most confident people in the garage.
"See, I just thought confidence just came and went on its own accord," Earnhardt said. "I thought it was elusive. I thought that one day I would just do something and, 'Boom! I've got confidence.' You have to work on that. It don't just happen on its own."
Earnhardt had better be confident Sunday. He's only 23 points from falling out of the top 10, positions that are guaranteed a spot in the Chase. Denny Hamlin, the driver he's fighting to stay ahead of, has a 13.4 average finish at The Glen. Hamlin also has a win this season, which at this point gives him the second wild-card spot behind Brad Keselowski with two victories.
Tony Stewart, the driver next in front of Earnhardt, is the king of The Glen with five wins in the past nine races there and an average finish of 2.6 in the past five.
The good news for Earnhardt is that drivers 12 through 14 in the standings haven't had any more success at The Glen than he has. Clint Bowyer's average finish is 22.8, Greg Biffle's is 25.1 and Paul Menard's is 23.9.
That makes this an even bigger weekend for Earnhardt, who could put some distance between himself and those chasing the 10th spot with four tracks statistically good for him ahead.
"I think every one of them is [big]," Earnhardt said of the next five races. "But, yeah, the ones where your track record is not as superb, you definitely worry about that a little bit. I'm going to go in there with a positive attitude and go in there with an attitude we can accomplish what we need to accomplish when we're there."
That Earnhardt is in this tenuous position two months after being third in points has to make NASCAR's front office nervous, understanding another year of the sport's most popular driver not making the Chase can't be good. Some might be privately crossing their fingers as Earnhardt goes to one of his worst tracks.
Earnhardt might be crossing his fingers, too.
Said believes Earnhardt is selling himself short, that if he stays out of trouble and doesn't have mechanical issues, a top-15 is a given.
Having taught Earnhardt his secrets to road course racing in the past, Said knows all the pieces are in place if Earnhardt simply manages the brakes better.
"Maybe that is his weak point," Said said. "I know firsthand he is a good road racer. I don't know why he hasn't done better. Maybe he hasn't gotten the confidence, the right setup in the COT car."
Earnhardt needs to think more like Stewart, who for obvious reasons believes he is unbeatable at The Glen. He needs to stop thinking stock cars aren't built for road racing and remembering how much he hates road courses.
You don't have to tell Earnhardt this. He knows it just as he knows his position in the standings leaves him vulnerable.
"When you're not confident, everything you hear sort of can work on you and you can carry it into the car, and everything else in the back of your head is bugging you," he said. "But I've got confidence. I feel like we're a good enough team to do it.
"That sort of helps me get in the car and go, 'All right, time to block everything out no matter what it is, the media, Mom's birthday.' Whatever it is, you block it out and go work."
Earnhardt's teammates do that better than most. Five-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson worked his tail off to prove he was a good road course racer, finally winning last year at Sonoma. You don't hear Jeff Gordon whining about an average finish of 20.8 over the past nine races at The Glen, where he won four times before this slump.
"Confidence helps anywhere," Said said. "It's sometimes like golf. You come to a hole where you always hit it in the water, and you get to this hole and you automatically think you're going to have a bad hole.
"It's the same in road racing. You've got to go in with the right attitude and like what you're doing and be positive about it."
It's not like Earnhardt has to worry about losing his job if he doesn't perform well this weekend. He's on the verge of signing a long-term extension with Hendrick Motorsports. He just needs to listen to Said and think positive.
"He has plenty of car control," Said said. "It's really just getting the technique of different braking and knowing when to downshift and working on slower corners. Some guys get it and some don't quite have it.
"It's the same type of thing that makes Junior so good on a restrictor plate racetrack."
That's it. Maybe Earnhardt should pretend this is Talladega or Daytona, make The Glen his favorite track, just as he attempted at Sonoma before a wreck on Lap 37 left him 41st to start his downward spiral in the standings.
If he can somehow leave Sunday with a top-10, he would have to go into the final four races -- Michigan, Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond, tracks where Earnhardt has six of his 18 career wins and a combined 40 top-10s -- before the Chase field is set feeling good about his position.
He doesn't need to steal a good finish. He needs to take one.
He needs to embrace road racing, not hate it.
His season -- maybe even career -- is riding on it.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.