It was an all too familiar scene during the running of the LifeLock.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway on Saturday night.
With only eight races remaining before the chase for the Sprint Cup championship begins, NASCAR’s most popular driver once again finds himself wondering how he let this race get away.
Hendrick Motorsports driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., started the night 46 points ahead of his HMS teammate Mark Martin, 11th in the point standings, but before the night would end, he would drop two spots to 13th.
Earnhardt now finds himself 15 points behind Richard Childress Racings Clint Bowyer, who is now on the bubble in the 12th and final chase spot, with seven races to go before the chase begins.
Earnhardt, who started making progress halfway through the scheduled 267 lap event, found himself as high as 14th place, before settling for 23rd after rolling off 25th on the grid.
“We’re pretty disappointed, a little bit devastated with how we ran tonight,” Earnhardt said after his disappointing run.
Earnhardt added that, “We have got nobody to blame but ourselves. We worked real hard in practice trying to get better because we knew this was about how we were going to run.”
Knowing they only have seven races to get back into the chase, the No. 88 Amp Energy/National Guard crew never gave up while making some pretty aggressive adjustments in an attempt to make the car better.
“We tried all the way to the end,” said Earnhardt. “We just didn’t have any changes that really responded. We wore every right rear tire put on my car to the cords. What are you going to do?”
Earnhardt also talked about how, “I let Lance rip away, sling away to get the car as good as he can get it. I believe what he does is right.”
No matter how hard the team tried to get the car to respond, it was one of those nights when nothing seemed to work. It can be added as another chapter to the never-ending story of the team since the season began.
“Tonight, some of the adjustments didn’t respond like we thought they should have. But sometimes this car doesn’t behave like you think it would,” said Earnhardt.
Earnhardt himself took a shot at trying to make his car better, when he told McGrew that maybe he needed to add a spring rubber to the right rear. That brought this reaction from Earnhardt: “Holy moly, that was not the right thing to do.”
Earnhardt also added that “It was really a [crappy] driving-car all night. We made it worse at times. We made it better at times. Ain’t no excuses, we just weren’t very good.”
This is after last weekend’s fourth place finish at Daytona, along with the previous three weeks where his worst finish was an 11th, on the road course at Infineon Raceway.
The team was headed in the right direction when they picked up five spots to put themselves into the chase, during the four race swing which started at Michigan when Earnhardt finished seventh.
With only seven races left before the chase, Earnhardt will face the toughest part of his schedule, where his average finish is a mere 16.2 with the remaining races combined.
The series takes a week off before resuming at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where Earnhardt only has two top-10 finishes in 16 starts.
Then it’s on to Pocono, which is another track where Earnhardt has had his share of bad runs. Earlier in the year after starting third, he brought his car home 19th while staying on the lead lap.
With an average finish of 17.5 to go along with five top-fives and six top-10 finishes in 21 starts, Earnhardt would need to dig deep since this will leave him five races to get into the chase.
Watkins Glen is another track where Earnhardt has had limited success, and with two top-five and three top-10 finishes in 10 starts, this track could be the deciding factor for the rest of his season.
Earnhardt was able to finish seventh at Michigan earlier in the year after starting 27th, and with one win to go along with four top-five, and eight top-10 finishes, he could very well put himself back into chase contention with another victory at this two mile oval.
Bristol is probably the best chance Earnhardt will have to salvage his season, depending on where he is in the point standings.
With a seventh place finish earlier in the season, Earnhardt also has one win, seven top-five, and 12 top-10 finishes in 21 starts.
Atlanta is another track where Earnhardt is no stranger to visiting victory lane, and along with the victory, he has eight top-five and 10 top-10 finishes in 22 starts.
Richmond could very well be the deciding factor, depending how close Earnhardt is to making the chase—that’s only if he isn’t already in.
With this being the final race before the post-race festivities begin, three wins along with eight top-five and 10 top-10 finishes would make this track one to look forward to.