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Dale Earnhardt Jr. has a lot of road to make up in Chase for the Cup

Driver is 26 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson after two races in NASCAR's 10-race playoff for the title, and some already are counting him out.

September 26, 2012|By Jim Peltz
  • Dale Earnhardt Jr. is 26 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson after two races in NASCAR's 10-race playoff for the title
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is 26 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson after two races… (Jamie Squire / Getty Images )

Only two races into NASCAR's 10-race Chase for the Cup title playoff and already there's talk that Dale Earnhardt Jr. might be out of the running.

Earnhardt doesn't buy it.

"I feel like we're still in the hunt," Earnhardt said Tuesday in a conference call. "We're not giving up. There's a lot of racing left."

The popular driver is seventh in the Chase standings, 26 points behind leader and teammate Jimmie Johnson, a five-time Cup champion, after Earnhardt opened the playoff with finishes of eighth at Chicagoland Speedway and 13th on Sunday at New Hampshire.

The Chase continues Sunday at the one-mile, high-banked Dover (Del.) International Speedway, where Earnhardt has one victory. But that was in 2001.

Earnhardt, still seeking his first championship, acknowledged it won't be easy to win the Chase this year in his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.

The strong drivers ahead of him in the Chase include Brad Keselowski, who's only one point behind Johnson; Denny Hamlin, who has won a series-high five times this year and is seven points back, and reigning champion Tony Stewart, who's 10 points behind.

A driver can earn up to 48 points in a race. But if Johnson and Earnhardt's other challengers also finish well in a race, it's tough to climb in the standings.

In addition, Earnhardt — whose team shares its Hendrick race shop with Johnson's team — said Johnson looks as confident as ever.

"The blueprint to success is in a stall right next to me in that shop," which has "definitely improved my performance as a driver," Earnhardt said.

But he added that Johnson "seems like there's nothing really standing in his way" to another championship.

"This is going to be very hard," said Earnhardt, 37, who ended a four-year winless streak with a victory at Michigan in June. But he added that "we're not discouraged. You got eight races left."

After Dover, the Chase moves to the always unpredictable Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, where multi-car crashes can jostle the standings in a hurry.

Hamlin's fifth win was Sunday at New Hampshire. But the Virginian has his hands full at Dover, a track known as "the Monster Mile" that's paved with concrete, not asphalt, and where Hamlin has never won.

The concrete surface has "kind of thrown me for a loop over the course of my career," Hamlin, who drives the No. 11 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, said on the conference call.

In addition, Dover is "really good for the 48," meaning Johnson, who's a seven-time winner at Dover, including the June race there this season.

Hamlin, 31, narrowly missed winning the Chase in 2010 when he finished second in points to Johnson. But Hamlin said "our performance [this year] is as good, if not better, than what it was in 2010, so that part is encouraging."

james.peltz@latimes.com

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