Pocono, Michigan offer Junior best shot
Retiring Earnhardt going race to race
LONG POND, PA. If Dale Earnhardt Jr. had mentally circled one of the six remaining regular-season races of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series on his calendar, he bluffed through it well Saturday at Pocono Raceway.
Asked where he would most likely expect a breakthrough, playoff-qualifying, retirement-season-capping victory as the regular season unwinds, the 42year-old had to be briefly refreshed on the schedule.
“So I know we are here this weekend,” he said. “We’ve got the Glen and then Richmond in the last one, right? What are the other ones?”
That would be Pocono on Sunday, Watkins Glen International next week, then Michigan International Speedway (Aug. 13), Bristol Motor Speedway (Aug. 19), Darlington Raceway (Sept. 3) and Richmond International Raceway (Sept. 9).
“Michigan is a good one, that’s a good track for us,” Earnhardt said. “Bristol? I could probably win there. What was the other one?” Darlington, he was told, inducing a sigh.
“Darlington, man if we come close that is a win,” he said of the 1.366-mile track where he is winless. “That place is tough, but you never know. We will just have to keep showing up and see what happens.”
A win is the only way a playoff berth and emotional send-off into retirement is going to happen.
The Hendrick Motorsports driver enters the weekend 22nd in points with one top-five finish, four top-10s, no stage wins and six unfinished races. An untenable 213 points — a win pays a base of 40 points — and five drivers without a valid win separate him and Matt Kenseth, who currently holds the final points playoff slot.
After finishing 12th or worse for the last month and crashing into a 36th-place result at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last week, the trend line is not encouraging. But he sees a glimmer at the 2.5mile triangular track in the Pennsylvania hinterlands.
Although he has won three times at Richmond, site of the regular-season finale, Earnhardt’s recent success at Pocono — both wins came in 2014 — encourages him for this weekend.
He has won twice at Michigan International Speedway, also, but not since the first race there in 2012. Earnhardt won at Richmond in 2000, 2004 and 2006, eons ago in terms of the current race car.
“You’ve got to keep trying,” Earnhardt said. “I think here and Michigan are tracks that I have obviously have got some wins, recent wins at, so there is going to be some more expectations going into those or more confidence going into those.”
That said, Earnhardt is wary of mentally writing off a track with six chances remaining to follow Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart in qualifying for the playoffs in their final full-time seasons. NASCAR’s most popular driver must keep the approach at Watkins Glen, he said. NASCAR ranks his average finish there at 22.9, worst among the remaining regular-season tracks for him.
“I hate to say (there are more expectations at Pocono and Michigan), because we’ve got to go in there and even, like I said on social media the other day, we’ve got to go into Watkins Glen like we can win.
“We’ve got to go in there with that attitude if we want to win. If that opportunity falls in our lap, you have to have your head on straight. We will go to all these tracks with a great, positive attitude and see how it works out for us, but here and Michigan are probably the ones at the top of the list.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. won both Cup races at Pocono Raceway in 2014. He hopes to wrap up a playoff berth at the track Sunday.