Pocono, Michi­gan of­fer Ju­nior best shot

Re­tir­ing Earnhardt go­ing race to race

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - SPORTS -

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.”

MATTHEW O’HAREN, USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Dale Earnhardt Jr. won both Cup races at Pocono Race­way in 2014. He hopes to wrap up a play­off berth at the track Sun­day.

Brant James bjames@us­ato­day.com USA TO­DAY Sports

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