News & Media

Earnhardt, Newman still able to reverse fortunes

October 07, 2011, David Caraviello,

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Stewart: Everybody worrying way too much about points -- plenty of racing left

Dale Earnhardt Jr. enjoyed a fulfilling trip to Kansas Speedway this past spring, in more ways than one. He finished second in a Sprint Cup race that turned into a fuel-mileage dash, recording a result that matches his best of the season. And he discovered a local barbecue joint, Oklahoma Joe's, that he had heard about on the Food Network program Man vs. Food. He raved about the place, even though he had to stand in line longer to get his food than it took him to eat it.

"It was awesome," he said Friday. "I'd like to go there this weekend if I have an opportunity."

NASCAR's most popular driver could surely use a little home cooking as the circuit returns to Kansas, where Earnhardt needs a strong run to reverse championship hopes that have been trending in the wrong direction through little fault of his own. After finishing third in the Chase opener at Chicagoland, Earnhardt suffered a pair or cut tires at New Hampshire, and then had a sway bar break last week in Dover. The cumulative extent of the damage: a drop to 10th in the standings, and a perilous 34 points behind leader Kevin Harvick.

"I mean, 34 positions, you can do that in a race. There's only 43 of us in a race. With the right luck, you can make it happen."




"You get one mulligan, not two and a half. I think by no means are we out of a shot for a championship. "


The new points system implemented prior to this season has brought with it many unknowns, among them the limits of championship contention. How far back is too far back? Earnhardt and Ryan Newman are both traipsing dangerously close to falling a full race behind, which under the previous system served as something of a demarcation line between the haves and have-nots in the championship race. Now, though, the standings seem to fluctuate every week. Seven races still remain, none of the Chase drivers have been mathematically eliminated, and Earnhardt concedes nothing.

"You don't really know I guess," Earnhardt said. "I mean, 34 positions, you can do that in a race. There's only 43 of us in a race. With the right luck, you can make it happen. We're going to have to run good to do that. We'll see how that goes. We've had some pretty fast cars, some quick enough cars to have some good finishes. Man, I would like to win a race before the year is out, and I think we can do that as a team. I feel confident that we can do that. I don't think it's over by no means."

Last week's event at Dover provided something of an inspiration for those mired at the bottom of the Chase standings. Five-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson entered 10th, his lowest position ever in the playoffs, following problems the previous week at New Hampshire that dropped him 29 points behind the leader. Johnson responded by finishing third and making up 16 points to get his drive for a sixth championship back on track. Even more impressive, Kurt Busch responded from a miserable Sunday in New Hampshire to win at Dover, and make up 19 points to vault all the way to fourth place.

Granted, both of those accomplishments were made possible because then-series leader Tony Stewart struggled, allowing those deeper in the field the opportunity to make up ground. There's no guarantee that Harvick or co-leader Carl Edwards will have similar issues Sunday at Kansas. But still, the message was sent -- all it takes it one race to turn things around.

"Last week you guys counted Jimmie Johnson potentially out. He bounced back pretty vibrantly, and that was one race," said Newman, 41 points back in 11th. "We've got seven to go, or whatever it is. From my standpoint, just go out there and do our best. It's no different. But we're 41 points out -- 42 if you want to go for the championship, I guess, because we don't have the wins to beat some of the guys up there. But we can. There's still plenty of time. There are still plenty of, I guess, wild cards if you want to say it, between Phoenix and Martinsville and Talladega. We don't know."

That doesn't mean, though, that the problems that have plagued those near the bottom of the Chase standings can continue. Earnhardt has seemingly had good cars every week in this playoff, but at Dover his sway bar came loose and dragged the ground, and the No. 88 car lost a lap trying to repair it. He drove back into the top 15, and then lost track position again due to a loose wheel. Although initial reports indicated a bolt had not been tightened, Earnhardt said crew chief Steve Letarte told him the sway bar -- a suspension piece that connects opposite wheels through a torsion spring -- broke at a weld joint.

"There was not enough penetration on that weld. Not enough heat," Earnhardt said. "That's what he told me, so that's what I will go with. I haven't seen the piece that broke. It's unfortunate but I'm sure it won't happen again. Chad Knaus promised me it wouldn't. I'll take his word. Pretty strong word."

Knaus is crew chief for Johnson, Earnhardt's stable mate at Hendrick Motorsports. Newman could surely use similar reassurances after his first three Chase races. "I'd like to hit the re-do button," he said, and with good reason. At Chicagoland, he ran out of gas and slid from third to eighth. At New Hampshire, he cut a tire in the final laps and fell to 25th after leading 62 laps and having one of the better cars in the race. At Dover, he lumbered home 23rd in a vehicle that suffered handling issues.

"You get one mulligan, not two and a half," Newman said. "I think by no means are we out of a shot for a championship. We've just got a pretty steep uphill battle I still think we're capable of overcoming. I'm not going to say that we're not. But it's not going to be easy."

Particularly given the logjam of drivers at the top of the standings, where the first nine are separated by 19 points. Right now, there's already some separation between that lead group and the rest of the championship field. But in one week, Johnson and Busch went from the brink to back in the thick of it. Tony Stewart went from a hammerlock two-race win streak to third place and seemingly vulnerable. For Earnhardt and Newman, similar changes in fortune are certainly possible. Who knows what a difference one weekend and some good Kansas City barbecue might make.

"Last week I went in, and everybody was asking and saying that Jimmie was out of it," Matt Kenseth said. "I was thinking that he had won the last however many Dover races. I thought that was interesting, because you can have some pretty wild point swings. The further you get down the road, you can start looking at it and see who you think is more legitimate than others, but there are a lot of cars really close right now. I think it is pretty early to be eliminating anybody."

"We have seven races to go," Stewart agreed. "You look at how much it changed in the first two weeks. You can stare at the point standings until you are blue in the face. There is a long way to go still. Everybody is worrying way too much about the points and where everybody is at right now."

* Chase Video Highlights: Earnhardt | Newman