Junior is likely to miss Chase, but could take Atlanta checkers
Dale Earnhardt Jr. will likely miss out on his second consecutive Chase this year
Replacing crew chief Lance McGrew could be a mistake for the Junior's team
Earnhardt Jr. is my pick to take the checkers under the lights at Atlanta on Sunday
In a little more than two weeks, when the checkered flags wave on NASCAR's regular season at Richmond International Speedway on Sept. 11, Dale Earnhardt Jr. won't have to answer the question anymore. He won't have to hear it from fans, from the media, from even his closest friends: Dale, do you think you'll make the Chase? Do you? Do you?
In reality, we already know the answer: No, he won't. In what must be considered another lost, disappointing season for NASCAR's most popular driver, Earnhardt is currently 18th in the standings and 170 points behind Clint Bowyer for the 12th and final position that advances to NASCAR's 10-race playoff. Barring the greatest -- and luckiest -- comeback in NASCAR history, Little E will be sitting out NASCAR's 10-race playoff for the second straight season.
The No. 88 team showed a sliver of promise early in the summer. At one point, Junior had four straight finishes of 11th or better and had risen to 12th in the standings. But since the race at Chicagoland on July 10, Earnhardt has been a mid-pack driver (at best) and has failed to finish higher than 19th in five of the last six races.
So what's the problem? If Earnhardt, crew chief Lance McGrew or owner Rick Hendrick knew the answer, this would be a top-5 team, because Hendrick, unquestionably, is supplying Little E and McGrew with massive resources. Given the team's struggles, it will be tempting for Hendrick to make a crew chief change at season's end, but I think that would be a mistake.
Why? Because McGrew, who has been with Earnhardt only since May 2009, is still learning what Earnhardt likes in his car -- and still learning the unique lexicon Earnhardt uses to describe what he senses behind the wheel. When Earnhardt was at his best, back in 2004 when he finished fifth in the final standings and won six races, he was teamed with Tony Eury Jr., his cousin, who knew how to decipher Earnhardt's words and translate them into timely setup changes in the car.
But Earnhardt and Eury had an almost intuitive understanding of each other, one that was formed over years of friendship and family dinners; McGrew and Earnhardt simply don't have that. So if Hendrick were to ask me for advice, I'd recommend hiring Eury to be the car chief (or to take on some top-end role on the team) and let Eury sit next to McGrew on the pit box during races and have them act almost as co-crew chiefs for the last 10 races of 2010 and then, if it works, for '11. Would this suddenly translate into speed for Earnhardt? I don't know, but clearly something radical needs to be done for this team to become championship-caliber.
On Sunday, in this woebegone season for Earnhardt, I expect him to be fast at Atlanta, which has long been his favorite track on the circuit. He won the pole here earlier this year and has a career average finish at Atlanta of 12.0, which makes this 1.5-mile track his second best on the schedule behind Bristol (11.5).
Earnhardt also will be driving a brand new car on Sunday that will feature all of the latest and greatest Hendrick technology. Can Earnhardt possibly author one memorable moment from this year and pull out a win on Sunday night? I'm going out on the longest of limbs with this answer: yes. He's my pick to take the checkers.
Here are four other drivers I'll be closely watching as the laps wind down Sunday night:
1. Jimmie Johnson
Here's a stat to chew on: Johnson has more 20th or worse place finishes this season (9) than in any other in his nine-year Cup career. Yes, the four-time defending Sprint Cup champion is very, very vulnerable as the Chase approaches. He's in no danger of not making it into the playoff -- he's currently ninth in the points and holds a 257-point lead over the 13th place driver, Jamie McMurray -- but in the last four years Johnson has peaked just as the Chase has started, which obviously is not happening right now.
He's traditionally been strong at Atlanta. He has three career wins at the track and has led laps in six of its last eight races. If he doesn't pull out a top-10 finish on Sunday, it officially will be time for Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus to worry about whether or not they can be serious players in the Chase.
2. Carl Edwards
The two hottest drivers in NASCAR right now are the Roush Fenway teammates of Greg Biffle and Edwards. Though Edwards has yet to reach Victory Lane in 2010, he hasn't finished lower than 12th in his last seven starts and has four top-5 runs over that span.
Edwards loves Atlanta. He has three career wins at the intermediate-length track -- a genre that is Edwards' specialty -- and you can expect him to go for broke on Sunday. After all, he's currently fourth in the standings and in desperate need of the 10 bonus points a driver earns for the Chase with a regular season victory.
3. Greg Biffle
As mentioned, Biffle has been on a roll of late. Over the last five races Biffle has a win, three top-5s and four-top 10s. Biffle isn't going to be our pick to win it all in the magazine -- you'll have to wait until the 9/20 issue is published to find out who we believe your 2010 Chase champion will be -- but we were tempted. After all, he's doing what Johnson has done in the past four years: Peak at the perfect time.
Biffle has never won at Atlanta, but it would surprise no one in the garage -- and I mean, no one -- if he ended up in Victory Lane on Sunday.
4. Clint Bowyer
The only real drama left in the regular season -- aside from who will win the final two races -- is can Bowyer hold off Jamie McMurray for the final spot that advances to the Chase. Bowyer holds a 100-point advantage over McMurray, largely because Bowyer came up big last weekend at Bristol, finishing fourth. A similar result on Sunday would pretty much solidify his spot in the championship.
It won't be easy. In his last two starts in Atlanta he hasn't finished higher than 23rd. That means there could be an opening for McMurray, who has been the most up and down driver in the sport this season.