Dale Earnhardt Jr. talks with crew members during Friday's practice… (Jason Smith / Getty Images )
Junior Nation is ecstatic.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s sprawling fan base lit up NASCAR message boards and websites in celebration last Saturday after the 36-year-old driver earned a Chase for the Sprint Cup berth for the first time since 2008.
But it wasn't easy for a driver who started the season well, then struggled and qualified the hard way.
Maneuvering a damaged No. 88 Chevrolet to a 16th-place finish at Virginia's Richmond International Raceway, Earnhardt locked down the 10th and final automatic Chase berth.
"We ran poorly" late in the season, Earnhardt said last week. "If we would have minimized our own mistakes, we would have had nothing to worry about at Richmond, we would have been locked in."
However, he added, "I'm in the Chase, so I've got a shot. Opportunity is on the table and you just never know."
Earnhardt isn't among the favorites to contend in the 10-race series beginning Sunday with the Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway. He hasn't had a NASCAR win in 119 tries and missed the Chase three times between 2007 and 2010.
But don't tell true believers that Earnhardt won't be a factor.
Fans have voted him NASCAR's most popular driver for eight years. And his presence in the Chase series could give NASCAR's TV ratings a bump.
Earnhardt's ownership group made wholesale changes entering 2011, including a new crew chief in Steve Letarte, who formerly worked with Jeff Gordon.
Things started well with five top-five finishes and spots in the top 10 nine times. But his last top-five placing was in April and he hadn't been in the top 10 since Aug. 7.
Summer was the worst. Wrecks, a broken radiator and blown tires suddenly put a sure Chase spot in peril.
"It's been tough," he said. "We were real consistent at the start of the season and then struggled in the summer, which tends to be par for the course for me," he said. "The struggles we had [the last 10 weeks] really overshadowed how good we were this year."
Earnhardt has claimed 18 Sprint Cup victories since joining NASCAR in 2000. His best Sprint Cup series finishes were fifths in 2004 and 2006.
Earnhardt joined Hendrick Motorsports in 2007 for the 2008 NASCAR season and will maintain that association through 2017.
Earlier this month he got a vote of confidence from owner Rick Hendrick, signing a five-year contract extension with the group, which also represents five-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.
"My feelings haven't changed since the day he first signed with us," Hendrick said. "I'm committed as ever to putting him in the best possible situation to be successful and compete for wins and championships."