By Jenna Fryer
AP Auto Racing Writer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. candidly declared two weeks ago that he has too good of a race team to be worried about making NASCAR’s playoffs.
Since then, he has produced underwhelming finishes at Daytona and Kentucky and slipped to 13th in the Sprint Cup standings. Earnhardt hasn’t scored a top-10 finish in a month and, yes, he is indeed in danger of missing the championship Chase.
With eight races remaining to complete the 16-driver field, Earnhardt ranks third among drivers who have yet to secure a win this season but are ranked high enough to make the Chase. It’s not a safe position by any means: Earnhardt has slipped from seventh in the standings since May and has led only four laps since mid-March.
He’s not the only driver in a precarious position. Because 11 drivers have so far won races this season, any first-time winners in the next two months will claim the remaining five Chase berths. Among those looking for automatic berths in the Chase are two of Earnhardt’s Hendrick Motorsports teammates — Chase Elliott and Kasey Kahne — as well as 2015 qualifier Jamie McMurray.
Ryan Newman, who has made the Chase the last two years without a win, is on the bubble. Austin Dillon, rookie Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson are all eyeing wildcard spots but they could solidify a berth with their first career Cup wins.
The chances of some of the bubble drivers over the final two months of NASCAR’s “regular season” before the playoffs begin:
NASCAR’s most popular driver is probably the most puzzling performer this season. After winning seven races the past two years, this is the deepest he has gone into a season without a victory since his 2013 winless campaign. Earnhardt’s numbers are down across the board. He’s got only five top-five finishes, six top-10s and 53 laps led.
He told reporters after Saturday night’s 13th-place finish at Kentucky that he is not nervous about his positioning for the Chase.
“What am I going to do?” he asked. “We’re running as good as we can. It’s either going to be good enough or won’t be enough. I’m not really going to lose any sleep over it, at least at this moment. When we miss the Chase, it’ll be frustrating and disappointing, but we’re going to plan on not doing that. We’re going to plan on making it.”
In the coming month, Earnhardt could gain some traction at Pocono, where he has two career victories, finished second in June and has seven consecutive finishes of 11th or better.
He has also won at Bristol, Michigan and Richmond, where the Chase field will be finalized Sept. 10. Even if he doesn’t get a win, mediocre results at his strong tracks should be enough to get Earnhardt into the Chase.
Elliott is having a very nice rookie season and has climbed from 10th in the standings in early May to as high as sixth. He is currently eighth, the highest-ranked driver without a victory but three consecutive finishes outside the top-20 weakened his position.
What could work against Elliott is a lack of experience at some of the upcoming tracks. He’s yet to run a Cup car at New Hampshire, site of Sunday’s race, or Watkins Glen. Elliott has only been to Pocono in a Cup car once, same with Indianapolis. But he won Xfinity Series races at Darlington and Richmond, so both tracks are very familiar.
Kahne is in much rougher shape at 17th in the overall standings, but seventh among winless drivers.
Kahne has only one win in almost three full seasons, and he’s not exactly knocking on the door of victory lane. He’s finished in the top-five only twice this season and has yet to lead a lap.
He’s likely going to need to steal a win somewhere to have any shot at making the Chase.
He is the sneaky driver in this field and has successfully made the Chase the last three seasons. Despite not winning a race since 2013, Newman was runner-up in the championship in 2014 and made it to the second round of the Chase last year. Now he’s on another quiet run toward a Chase berth. Newman has climbed from 18th in the standings in May to 12th, and he’s ranked only behind Elliott among winless drivers. Also in his favor? He’s really good at Indy, where he’s got one career victory and five consecutive finishes of 12th or better.
THE YOUNG GUYS
NASCAR has high hopes for the future of the Cup Series with fresh talent in Elliott, Dillon, Blaney and Larson. Of that crop, Elliott is having the best year, but the others have shown flashes of stepping it up a notch.
Dillon is currently on the Chase bubble at 14th in the standings and only one point below Earnhardt. His season is up one week, down the next, and he needs consistency to maintain his footing.
Blaney is ranked 18th in the standings and is probably the longshot for victory lane. He has yet to lead a lap and only has six top-10 finishes, but Ford has turned it up of late and he’s got de facto Penske teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano to lean on for assistance.
Larson might be the first of the group to get a win, which would be long overdue. He has been erratic since his 2014 rookie campaign, though his drop-offs are much shorter now He was third at Michigan, followed by 12th at Sonoma. Then he was sixth at Daytona, followed by 19th at Kentucky.
If he’s going to make his first Chase, he either needs a string of top-10 finishes, or to finally get that first win.