Can Earnhardt Jr. Capture His 1st Title?
Thursday, November 9th 2006, 6:19 am
By: News On 6
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) _ Dale Earnhardt Jr. has worked his way up to third in the Chase for the championship standings _ no easy feat considering the issues he had from flag to flag at Texas Motor Speedway.
First, he battled strep throat and sore joints, both of which required him to increase his intake of fluids. But all that extra drinking gave him a severe case of heartburn, and he felt so lousy he said it was hard to focus on finishing the race.
``The first part of the race, I was a mess _ it was grueling for me,'' Earnhardt said. ``I could concentrate for about three laps and then I'd have two laps to where I just couldn't get nothing done and I was just all over the place feeling sick.''
When he finally found the will to continue, Earnhardt ran his No. 8 Chevrolet smack into the wall, causing considerable damage that dropped him back to 34th in the field. But his Dale Earnhardt Inc. crew made significant repairs to his car and Junior salvaged the day with a sixth-place finish.
It made Earnhardt believe his team finally has emerged as a championship contender.
``We've been called a lot of things, and it would be great to be called resilient,'' Earnhardt said. ``This team is very strong and very dedicated. They carry me whenever I need it and vice versa, and it helps to have that. It really, really does.''
Now he's got two weeks to see just how far this team really can go. He heads into Phoenix International Raceway just 78 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson, with Matt Kenseth sandwiched between the two.
If he's going to make up any ground, he knows it will have to come Sunday at Phoenix, where he went to Victory Lane in both 2003 and 2004 _ making him one of just three drivers with multiple wins on the 1-mile track. The others are Jeff Burton and Davey Allison.
But Earnhardt's success at Phoenix _ he's got four top-five finishes in the past six races there _ doesn't come naturally. It took him time to figure out how to race in the desert.
``When I first started running there, I didn't get around the place very good,'' he said. ``It was just a real hot, slick race track for me. I don't know what happened, but we showed up one week and this thing was just really, really fast and we've been fast ever since.''
He'll need that speed Sunday if he's going to have any shot at the title.
Johnson is on another one of his mind-boggling rolls, finishing second or better the past four weeks. And Kevin Harvick, who currently sits fifth in the standings, swept the Busch and Cup events there in April and will look to do the same this weekend.
So there's little room for error, and Earnhardt has an idea where he needs to be heading into next week's season finale to have any chance at all.
``We need to be in reasonable striking distance going into Homestead,'' he said. ``I'm really glad we're close. That's what you shoot for. We've got some hard, tough teams to beat, but I think we're putting up a great fight.''
Still, everyone across the board acknowledges it will be difficult to beat Johnson, who had dropped to ninth after the Chase opener and has mounted another one of his furious comebacks to position himself as the driver to beat. He's the guy they are all chasing into Phoenix, and even Kenseth, who sits 17 points out of the lead, knows catching Johnson will be difficult.
``I'm not being a pessimist, but I'm being a realist _ can we beat Jimmie Johnson on performance? Heck no,'' Kenseth said. ``The guy has been first or second for the past four weeks ... looking at that, you just don't feel too confident.''