Dale Earnhardt Jr. back in the game
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Don't count Dale Earnhardt Jr. out of the championship hunt.
No, I haven't been mixing Amp Energy drinks with adult beverages. This isn't a ploy to confuse Tony Stewart into thinking I'll come up with good questions when he is asked about Earnhardt's chances later in the week. I'm not trying to get on Earnhardt's good side because he's visiting ESPN headquarters Wednesday before heading to Chicagoland Speedway.
Kurt Busch hasn't gotten inside my head, either.
But almost every season since the Chase began, a driver has risen out of the ashes to at least make a run at the championship. It easily could be NASCAR's most popular driver this season.
The pressure is off now that Earnhardt has made the Chase. His confidence going in arguably is as high as it's ever been when entering the 10-race playoff. Listening to him after Saturday night's regular-season finale at Richmond, there was a sense of renewal in his voice.
"I'm in the Chase, and I've got an opportunity to run for the championship," Earnhardt said.
He's serious, too.
This doesn't sound like a driver who is settling for just being invited to the party. It sounds like a driver who believes that, with a few breaks, he can be the life of the party.
Why not? Juan Pablo Montoya entered the 2009 Chase tied for ninth in points, as Earnhardt is doing, and four races into the playoff was third in the standings, only 58 points out of the lead. He was still fourth with three races remaining before fading.
Few considered Jeff Burton a threat when the 2008 Chase began, but with five races remaining he was in second place only 69 points out of the lead.
Clint Bowyer started the 2007 Chase 12th in points and finished third, still within striking distance with three races remaining.
Perhaps the best argument for Junior Nation to maintain hope is Carl Edwards' 2005 season. He started the Chase ninth and finished tied for second, only 35 points out of first.
One year, an underdog will finish it off. It could be this year. It could be Earnhardt.
Here's something else to consider: In the last previous race at each of the 10 Chase tracks, Earnhardt's finishes add up to an average of 11.1. Five-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson's average is only slightly better at 9.9.
"Anybody has a chance," Busch said Tuesday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. "It's not somebody's race. It's anybody's race."
In 2008, Busch entered the Chase as the prohibitive favorite with eight regular-season wins. He started with finishes of 34th, 43rd and 28th and wound up 10th in the final standings.
"It means absolutely nothing," Busch said of regular-season accomplishments once the Chase begins.
This isn't a wild manipulation of numbers to give Junior Nation false hope. It's simply saying that anybody in the Chase has a shot, just as anybody in any playoff format has a shot.
It's why the Butlers of the college basketball world can't wait to get to the NCAA tournament -- because it gives them an opportunity to validate that they can be just as good as the so-called big boys.
Five times, the Super Bowl champion has been a wild-card team. Earlier this year in the NBA playoffs, eighth-seeded Memphis knocked off No. 1 San Antonio in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs and was one victory from advancing to the conference finals.
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It happens. Perhaps it could happen with Earnhardt. His odds certainly are better now than they were in February, when he was a 40-1 pick to win the title. He is 20-1 now.
"I feel like I'm a good enough driver to be in the Chase, my team is good enough to be there," Earnhardt said. "As a group, I think we're good enough to be in the top 10."
Don't forget, too, that Earnhardt was third in points 15 races into the season and only 27 points behind then-leader Edwards. A week earlier, Earnhardt was only 10 back.
Who's to say he can't put together that kind of run again?
And again, Earnhardt has handled the real pressure. After slipping to 10th in points at Indianapolis, just when it appeared his season was on the brink, he strung together six straight finishes between ninth and 19th to guarantee a spot.
Not spectacular. But consider that, a year ago, Earnhardt was 11th in points eight races before the Chase and had six finishes of 22nd or worse in disappearing.
Also consider that Earnhardt made the Chase this season with new crew chief Steve Letarte going to "conservative" setups to avoid engine failures and other setbacks down the stretch. Or, as Earnhardt said, he and his team didn't have "all our bullets in the gun, and we should be able to perform better once we get into the Chase."
Earnhardt doesn't have a long history of performing in the Chase, but he does have one. In the inaugural 2004 event, he was second after five races. He was third with a chance to move up with four races to go when, set for a top-5 late at Atlanta, he misjudged the distance sliding past then-rookie Edwards and spun out.
That left many in Junior Nation playing the "what if" game, particularly after Earnhardt won the next week at Phoenix.
But at least Earnhardt knows what it's like to be in the heat of a Chase battle, even if it came seven years ago and didn't quite work out.
None of this is to suggest that Earnhardt will win the title his father won seven times. It likely will take an average finish similar to the 6.2 Johnson had last season to win, and Earnhardt hasn't shown the capability of doing that -- yet.
It also likely will take a win or two to contend, and Earnhardt hasn't won since 2008.
But the point is, there's a chance, which is better than Earnhardt has had the past two seasons, when he wasn't close to making the Chase.
"When you're not in the Chase, it's a consolation to finish 13th or whatever your opportunity is, the best you can do, but that's not all that exciting," Earnhardt said.
When you're in the Chase, it is exciting, particularly at the beginning, because you have a chance to run for the title.
So don't count Earnhardt out just yet.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.
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