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Notebook: Ninth place earns breathing room for Earnhardt

August 07, 2011, Sporting News Wire Service,

LONG POND, Pa. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. got exactly what he needed Sunday -- a ninth-place finish that gave him a reasonable margin for error heading into next Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen.

It was hardly a perfect performance. Glitches on pit road probably cost Earnhardt three or four spots at the finish. Nevertheless, Earnhardt solidified his 10th-place position in the Cup standings and goes to the Glen with a 23-point advantage over 11th-place Denny Hamlin.

"There's still a lot of racing left. There is going to be some bad luck for some of these other guys we're racing for it."


"We had a real good car, and we had some real good speed in the car," Earnhardt said. "We had some struggles on pit road, and I know the guys on the team will get that sorted out -- and sometimes we just have mistakes.

"Sometimes the driver makes them, sometimes -- there's so many guys on the team it's rare when everyone is kind of clicking. We'll get it sorted out. We had good speed, though, we had a good car all day long, and [I'm] real happy how that worked out."

That kind of finish, Earnhardt's first top-10 since June 12 -- the last time the series came to Pocono -- gives him breathing room at the road course at the Glen, not one of his strongest tracks.

"Well, we're just going to try and go up there and steal a good finish -- like everyone else, you know," Earnhardt said. "You've got to do different strategy at the road-course races and pit once you get inside the [fuel] window and it's all kind of craziness. It's not really much fun, but that's the way it is."

Related: Hendrick, Junior close to contract extension

Despite top-10, Menard falls out of Chase-eligible position

Paul Menard backed up his victory in last week's Brickyard 400 with a strong 10th-place run Sunday, but that wasn't enough to keep him in a Chase-eligible position.

The quirks of NASCAR's new wild-card system, which rewards the two drivers in positions 11-20 with the most victories, elevated race winner Brad Keselowski (18th in the standings with two victories) over Menard (14th place with one victory) for a provisional Chase spot.

It didn't help Menard's cause that Denny Hamlin (11th with one victory) had trouble late in the race and finished 15th, failing to crack the top 10 in the standings.

Though circumstances conspired against Menard, he was pleased with his result.

"It was a good follow-up to last week's win," he said. "We fought hard for this top-10 finish. The No. 27 pit crew gained us some spots on that stop coming off the red flag [after a rain delay] that really helped out a bunch.

"The race for the final Chase spots is shaping up to be really competitive, and we're fighting hard to put ourselves in position to take one of those spots."

Related: Menard makes visit to SPEED RaceDay set

Ragan takes hit in wild-card race

David Ragan's wild-card chances took a serious hit when he crashed early at Pocono Raceway and finished 34th. Ragan has one win and is in 19th place, keeping him at least in the hunt over the final five races before the Chase field is set.

The top two drivers with the most victories in 11th to 20th place earn a wild-card spot for the playoffs. Brad Keselowski all but sealed up the first spot with his second victory of the season Sunday. Paul Menard has one win, but is in 14th place, leaving Ragan scrambling to avoid another poor finish as the competition heats up.

"We need to be in that top 12 or 13, or get a second win," Ragan said. "There's still a lot of racing left. There is going to be some bad luck for some of these other guys we're racing for it."

Related: Roush drivers find trouble early at Pocono Raceway

Keselowski qualifies for Summer Showdown

Brad Keselowski is the second driver to become a finalist in the Sprint Summer Showdown.

If Keselowski wins at Atlanta on Labor Day weekend, he will earn $1 million for himself, $1 million for his Checkered Flag Foundation charity and another million for a randomly chosen fan who went online and picked him to win Sunday's race.

Paul Menard was the first driver to qualify last week at Indianapolis.

There are three races left for drivers to qualify: Watkins Glen, Michigan and Bristol.

Related: Sprint Summer Showdown | BK in Victory Lane | Keselowski wins at Pocono

The Associated Press contributed to this report.