Musical Chairs and The Chase: Will Junior Be Left Standing?
Might Dale Earnhardt Jr., the most popular driver in stock car racing, not get invited to prom...for the second time in three years?
If Friday qualifying was any indication, Junior Nation may be crying in their beers by the end of the weekend.
But first, some backstory.
In 2002, the powers-that-be (read: The France family) decided NASCAR needed a new method for determining its champion. The result: the Chase for the Nextel Cup (to become the Sprint Cup in 2008).
In 2007, NASCAR made some "tweaks" to the Chase format after Junior and Jeff Gordon failed to qualify in 2005 and Tony Stewart came up short in 2006. The qualifiers now include only the top 12 drivers instead of the top 10 (plus anyone within 400 points of the leader)—although Jeff Gordon's huge lead would make the latter amendment moot this year (only second place Denny Hamlin is within 400 points of Gordon).
What does all that mean for Earnhardt? Nothing...except that hopefully he'll be better in 2008 in Hendrick Motorsports' equipment.
As for this season—Junior is in trouble. And the last six races tell the tale.
At New Hampshire, Junior was 12th in points, 127 ahead of 13th-place Ryan Newman. Newman's teammate Kurt Busch was 15th, 236 points from a Chase chair.
After this past weekend's Centurion Boats at The Glen, Busch has a seat...and Junior is 14th, 100 points in arrears.
Six races, a 336-point swing in Busch's favor. Junior's average finish in that period: 23rd. Busch's: 9th.
As Larry the Cable Guy would say, that'll "Git 'er done."
On Sunday, Junior starts 39th at Michigan, while Busch rolls off 15th. If Junior can't work some major mojo in the next few weeks, he's resigned to driving out the remainder of the season for a Dale Earnhardt Inc. team whose focus has shifted to the "other" Junior—Martin Truex Jr., who starts 14th Sunday and is currently 11th in points.
To make the Chase, Earnhardt's going to have to swipe a chair out from under both Busch and Newman—and potentially his own teammate Truex.
That could leave a bitter taste in the beer at DEI headquarters.
Cue the music—there's four songs to go.
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