If Dale Earnhardt Jr. were to glance immediately below his spot in NASCAR’s Chase standings, he would see Kyle Busch and Paul Menard lurking just one point away.
Just above, Jamie McMurray sits one point away from Earnhardt.
It’s a tight, uncomfortable sandwich in which Earnhardt sits: in 12th place as the 16-driver Chase heads into Sunday’s AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway, the final race of the playoffs’ first round.
With the top 12 advancing into the second round, Earnhardt’s spot is precarious. He knows it, but doesn’t really want to think about it.
“I don’t look at the numbers, because the numbers are scary,” Earnhardt said earlier this week at his Hendrick Motorsports shop in Concord. “I just want to go out and race and do what we’re supposed to do.
“I’m not that nervous about it; I don’t know why. If we make it, we make it. If not, I’ll deal with the disappointment if it happens. But I want to go through (to the second round).”
Earnhardt entered last week’s race at New Hampshire in 10th place in the Chase. His No. 88 Chevy was strong all day at Loudon and was running in the top five, until he ran out of gas near the end, dooming him to a 25th-place finish.
Earnhardt wasn’t alone with fuel problems at New Hampshire. Kevin Harvick ran dry (likely costing him a victory), as did Kurt Busch. Earnhardt deflected any criticism that might have been directed at first-year crew chief Greg Ives for the miscue.
“We made a mistake; we miscalculated,” Earnhardt said. “I’m confident with Greg. He’s going to be a star in this sport down the line. I’m glad to work with him as a crew chief.
“We all went over and over that in our heads. There’s no going back there and fixing it. Unfortunately, we had a great car. We should have run great and been in the top five pretty easily.
“If we could have played the strategy a little differently – we didn’t have to gamble like Harvick – and (been) more conservative, it would have been a whole different situation. But we’re not in that situation.”
Earnhardt has won twice this season, both victories coming at NASCAR’s biggest and fastest tracks (Talladega and Daytona).
The Daytona victory came in July, and also serves as the most recent victory by a Hendrick driver. But Hendrick’s Chase drivers – Earnhardt, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon – have been performing better in recent weeks. Johnson (fifth) and Gordon (10th) both appear to be in good shape to advance to the second round.
“The cars are there, the speeds are there,” Earnhardt said. “The company seems to be improving. The last couple of weeks, we’re getting to where we’re used to be.
“I’ve just got to remember how we’re performing. We have this speed. If you’re struggling with speed and performance, that’s something that’s hard to fix. A mental lapse, you can fix.”