TALLADEGA, Ala. — This magical season for Dale Earnhardt Jr. comes down to one race to save his championship hopes. NASCAR’s most popular driver must win Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway to continue his quest for his first career Sprint Cup title.
It’s a pressure-packed situation for Earnhardt, who knows that six-time and defending NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson and 2012 champion Brad Keselowski are also in must-win situations Sunday. The three combined for 10 wins during the regular season but go into this elimination race ranked at the bottom of the 12-driver field.
Four drivers will be cut from the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship Sunday and won’t be eligible to race for the title next month.
“I wish we were in a better position to achieve what we want to achieve and be able to move forward,” Earnhardt said Saturday. “I wish we had to finish ‘X’ or better. But we have only one route, and that’s through Victory Lane, and that’s the only way we can get forward into the Chase.
“It’s definitely a tall order, but we have nothing to lose.”
So Earnhardt is clear about his strategy for Sunday.
The five-time Talladega winner wants to run at the front of the field and be in position to hold off challenges over the closing laps. The Talladega field can be one giant pack of traffic that can be wiped out by the smallest bobble.
Most drivers aim to stay out of trouble until about 20 laps to go, then charge toward the front when the win is on the line. But that hurt Earnhardt here in the spring, when he waited too late to make his move and couldn’t pick his way through traffic.
So the Daytona 500 winner isn’t leaving anything for chance, and he’s doing his best to tune out the pressure and simply be ready to go Sunday.
“I’ve been racing here a long time. I got it,” he said. “Just have to get my suit on and get in the car. I just don’t need to eat any bad fish or junk food. Put good stuff in your body you can burn and drink a lot of water to hydrate.
“I’m ready to race and ready for some fun. I like the challenge. I feel like I have some fortune and a little bit of luck to still have a shot.”
Here’s a look at some of the other drivers with a lot on the line Sunday:
JIMMIE JOHNSON: Not since the 2010 season finale has Johnson felt this level of pressure on his championship hopes.
Johnson went to the season finale that year trailing Denny Hamlin in the points, and he said he thought he had to win at Homestead to grab his fifth consecutive title. Hamlin had a poor race, though, and Johnson won the championship with a second-place finish.
But he knows when he gets in his Chevrolet on Sunday, it’s an absolute must-win situation if he’d like a shot at a record-tying seventh championship.
“I feel like I have a third opportunity this weekend,” he said. “Granted it’s a tough one and a lofty goal — there are many other guys out there with the same goal, not only from a Chase situation but also trying to win a race this year. I’ve got a lot of work ahead for myself.”
Johnson is a two-time winner at Talladega, in 2006 and 2010.
BRAD KESELOWSKI: The most dominant driver of the first segment of the Chase is in a deep hole in the second segment because of a blown tire at Kansas and then a poor race last week at Charlotte. He faded over the final two laps and forced himself into a must-win situation Sunday.
Keselowski’s first career Cup win came at Talladega, and he won here in 2012, as well.
He refused to tip his hand on his strategy for Sunday, but crew chief Paul Wolfe said he wants the No. 2 Ford at the front of the field all day.
“It’s really important to try to stay up front and be toward the front with track position,” Wolfe said. “It’s a lot harder to get to the front than it used to be.”
But that Team Penske team is facing the harsh reality that if they fail to win Sunday. the five-win season and consistency all year will have been for naught. Adding to the frustration is that they are racing for a victory against Earnhardt and Johnson, two very strong plate racers.
“It will be exciting to watch,” Wolfe said. “I told my guys, ‘We’ve worked really hard this year, we’ve brought fast race cars every weekend, and we’re not in the situation we want to be in. But it’s nothing to hang our head about and to be proud of our effort.’ If we come out of here Sunday and don’t make it, it’s not the end of the world.”
MATT KENSETH: He won a series-high seven races last year and went round-for-round with Johnson in the championship battle, only to fade in the homestretch.
Now Kenseth is in a far different position — winless on the season — and fighting hard to stave off elimination Sunday. He doesn’t need to win to get into the third round, but he needs a strong finish and for drivers ahead of him in the standings to falter.
He goes into Sunday trailing eighth-ranked driver Kasey Kahne by just one point, but coming off a rough race at Charlotte that ended with him jumping Keselowski after the event.
Kenseth knows he can wipe the slate clean and start over if he finds a way Sunday to advance into the third round.
“If we could come here and get a real good finish and finish ahead of a few cars, we could possibly get all our points back again,” Kenseth said. “Obviously I wish we would have won some races by now. The season we had last year, I never dreamed we would go 12 months without winning a race.
“I hope we have a good day Sunday and get into the next round. Even if we don’t, I still think we can win some races before the year is over.”
KEVIN HARVICK AND JOEY LOGANO: As winners in the first two races this round, Logano and Harvick are guaranteed spots in the third round. That safety net led Harvick to joke after his Saturday night win at Charlotte that he’d park his car at Talladega and watch the show as a spectator.
Neither driver actually plans to do that, though, even though they have little incentive to race hard.
“My guys have worked hard on the cars to make them as good as they can no matter the scenario,” Harvick said. “At the bare minimum, we owe it to them and the fans to race as hard as we can and take the same approach as we have all year (to) try to run well in practice, qualify well, lead laps and try to win a race.”
Team Penske competition director Travis Geisler said there is no scenario in which Logano will park the car, and noted all teams are still collecting points to finish as high as fifth in the standings should they be eliminated before the season finale.
Geisler also said a strong finish Sunday for Logano will prepare him to start the third round next week at Martinsville.
“I think momentum is a real important thing,” Geisler said, noting Logano opened the Chase with five consecutive top-five finishes.