DOVER, Del. (AP) _ Dale Earnhardt Jr. would rather face the burden of digging out of his seventh place spot in the Nextel Cup points standings then not being in the Chase at all.
One year after failing to qualify for NASCAR's Chase, Earnhardt used 12 top-10 finishes to surge into contention for the first time in two years. But he faded late in New Hampshire and finished a disappointing 13th in the opening race of the Chase, placing him 81 points behind series leader Kevin Harvick.
It's still early. The Dover 400 this weekend kicks off the final nine races in the Chase, but another double-digit finish would have Earnhardt scrambling to make up ground. He's been unpredictable at the Monster Mile, winning the September race five years ago, but with three finishes in the 30s on this track since that victory. He finished 10th here in June and starts 13th on Sunday.
``I've had some good times here, some good runs here, some great cars here, but it's sort of hit and miss,'' Earnhardt said. ``I think we've hit on it this weekend.''
Earnhardt saw noticeable progress once he was reunited with his crew chief and cousin, Tony Eury Jr., late last season. That chemistry (albeit combustible at times) carried into this year, sparing one of NASCAR's most popular drivers the embarrassment of missing the Chase two straight seasons.
``I've done a better job this year than I have in the past of making sure he understands what a big deal he is to me and how much he means to me,'' Earnhardt said. ``Not only just to my success as a race car driver, but to me personally. It would be real, real hard to not work together ever again.''
Earnhardt knows he needs to get going at Dover to be a legitimate factor in the 10-man, 10-race Chase. His father was a seven-time champion, so missing out last season only fueled the criticism toward Junior.
He ran in the top five at New Hampshire before falling off, something Earnhardt can't afford to do again.
``I feel like we let ourselves down a little bit,'' he said. ``We can't do that.''