HAMPTON, Ga. — For drivers such as Dale Earnhardt Jr., patience is definitely a virtue at this point in the season.
Then again, there’s a sense of urgency with the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship just two races away.
Only three drivers are assured of being in the 12-car playoff — five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer and Matt Kenseth — but the outlook could be a lot clearer after tonight’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
While Earnhardt, ranked seventh in the points, is solidly positioned to maintain his spot in the playoff, he knows major problems at Atlanta and next weekend’s race in Richmond could knock him out.
“We’re just going to have to keep an eye on everybody around us,” Earnhardt said. “I feel pretty good. I love Atlanta. I love Richmond. Those are good tracks for us. We have a chance to be successful, so I feel pretty confident.”
Last season, the sport’s most popular driver made the Chase but lost any hope of claiming his first series title when he sustained a concussion at Talladega, preventing him from racing the next two weeks.
Now, with another shot at going for a championship, the 38-year-old Earnhardt knows he must balance his desire to win races against making sure he’s still running at the end.
“I understand. I’ve been through the process before,” he said. “You don’t want to make knee-jerk reactions on the race track, do things that cause problems and wreck the car or anything like that. I’ve been in situations where I didn’t realize the sacrifice I made until it was too late. Now, I understand it’s about being more patient and allowing the race to happen.”
No one is feeling the heat more than Brad Keselowski.
The defending Cup champion has yet to win this season and ranks 11th in the standings, making it possible he won’t even get a chance to defend his crown in the final 10 races of the season.
“Quite honestly, our backs are against the wall,” Keselowski said. “But these are the times where great teams step up and make something happen, great drivers step up and make a play. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to prove what we’re worth.”
Johnson, who had an unprecedented run of titles from 2006-10, leads the standings and clinched his spot in the Chase three weeks ago. Bowyer wrapped up his automatic spot last week. Kenseth — who has a series-high five victories — is assured of at least a wild card, one of two spots that go to the drivers ranked 11th to 20th with the most wins.
Others are close.
Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick can clinch their spots before they head to Richmond, while Kyle Busch — who missed out on the Chase a year ago — is in good position this time with three wins and the fifth-most points.
Earnhardt, Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle and Joey Logano are next in line, though not nearly as comfortable about their chances of advancing. Right on their heels are Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon and Martin Truex.
At the moment, Truex is only 14th in the standings but has a win — which gives him the edge in the wild-card race over the three drivers right ahead of him, all winless on the season.
That could change in Atlanta, of course, which is why Truex is racing with a cast after breaking his right wrist in a crash at Bristol last weekend. Scott Speed is prepared to park his car and step in for Truex should the pain become unbearable during a 325-lap event on one of NASCAR’s fastest tracks.
That said, it’s hard to envision any scenario where the driver of the No. 56 car steps aside.
“I’m going to say there’s a 99 percent chance that I will race the whole race,” Truex said, even though he acknowledged “my fingers still hurt, my knuckles are kind of tender, so shifting is a little bit of an issue as far as the pain goes.”
Kurt Busch is trying to get one of the second-tier teams, Furniture Row Racing, into the Chase before he moves to Stewart-Haas Racing next season, the former Cup champion’s career back on the upswing after he was fired by Penske Racing for unruly behavior.
“It’s tough to have the present to work on and try to get Furniture Row in the Chase and then the future with Stewart-Haas Racing. It’s tough to balance it all,” Busch said.
“I think the most important two races in the No. 78 car’s history are these next two.”
Earnhardt will try to keep an eye on all those guys attempting to knock him out of the Chase.
But there’s only so much he can do.
“You can’t run the car any faster than it will go,” Earnhardt said. “If you’re having trouble beating a couple of guys, just stay as close to ‘em as you can and maybe have a shot at getting around ‘em at the end of the race. Just run hard and run smart. If you don’t do anything stupid, that’s the thing that usually pays off.”