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Junior braces for tense regular-season finale

September 05, 2013, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com

Junior braces for tense regular-season finale
Earnhardt sits seventh in points, but 'not locked in by no means'

RICHMOND, Va. -- It’s been a tense past few weeks for Dale Earnhardt Jr., as the driver and his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports teams tried to lock down a berth in this year’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
 
One race remains -- Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway.
 
Seventh in points, Earnhardt Jr. can seal his sixth appearance in the 10-race playoff with a finish of 32nd or better, regardless of what others' fortunes may be. He can clinch with a finish of 33rd if he leads one lap (which earns a one-point bonus) or 34th if he leads the most laps (worth another one-point bonus) in the 400-lap race.

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A year ago, he headed to Richmond already guaranteed of a spot in the Chase. This year there are no guarantees.
 
“I definitely understood last year when we were … locked in, that it was a much easier ride, much more enjoyable,” Earnhardt Jr., 38, said Thursday during his media availability at RIR. “The last couple weeks have been pretty stressful from a points standpoint.
 
“It’s difficult … because you have to focus so much on those points, you have to focus on all those guys, that handful, half a dozen guys, that are around you in points (and) wonder what they're doing. You can't help it.”
 
Keeping an eye on the competition, he said, isn’t nearly as enjoyable as being able to simply go out and run one’s race at one’s own pace.
 
“You really like to concentrate on the balance of your car, working on your car with your crew chief, trying to give yourself a chance to win the race,” he said.
 
The points leader briefly earlier this season, Earnhardt Jr. fell to seventh in the standings following back-to-back finishes of 30th or worse at Watkins Glen and Michigan. The result was a points cushion of only 20 points inside the top 10.
 
Tenth and eighth in the Sprint Cup Series’ next two stops -- at Bristol and Atlanta -- provided his team with a bit more breathing room, and left him 55 points inside the top 10.
 
Still, he said, he’s wary.
 
“We’re not locked in by no means,” he said. “But we’re in a comfortable enough position to be able to pay attention to the race we’re running.”
 
Earnhardt Jr. is one of three drivers heading into this weekend’s race without a win this year. But the .75-mile short track has been good to the third-generation driver through the years and the 13.8 average finish here is his fourth best. He has three career wins at Richmond -- the last coming in 2006.
 
His team was strong a year ago, he said, and “in the conversation” among title contenders. “I felt like last year we really had put ourselves in a great position.”
 
But a concussion, the result of a crash during testing prior to the start of the Chase, came to light after he was involved in an accident at Talladega, and led to him sitting out two races down the stretch.
 
Now, he’s looking to make amends.
 
“This year the speed has been there, if not even better,” he said of his No. 88 Chevrolet. “Even though we're working with a new car, the speed has been really good, but we've not finished all the races. Mistakes I've made, crashes I've gotten myself into, engine failures, things like that that have taken away from our ability to show how strong we are to get consistent finishes like we did last year.”

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