Solid finish at The Glen should solidify Chase spot for Dale Jr.
Dale Jr. finished 15th at Watkins Glen, his first top-15 finish there in 16 years
Other drivers faltered, solidifying a top-10 spot, guaranteed Chase berth for him
Confidence, rapport with crew chief Steve Letarte have helped Earnhardt in '11
In a month one of the most significant moments in Monday's race at Watkins Glen will be clear and it's not what you might think.
Go beyond a five-time champion setting the weekend's tone by all but questioning another competitor's manhood. Skip past the rain delay, the dramatic finish, a car flipping and another newcomer to Victory Lane. Turn your attention away from the weekend ending with a jab tossed and angry words exchanged between drivers in person and via Twitter.
Then you might come across one of the most significant events of the race. Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 15th.
It doesn't seem like much now, but Earnhardt's finish could be what gets him into the Chase for the first time in three years. At least he thinks so.
"I think we're a good enough team to make the Chase bar none; we should be able to get in there no problem,'' he said after Monday's race, which leaves four events until the Chase field is set.
Monday was a big day for Earnhardt, not just in what he did but also in what others didn't. Many of the drivers Earnhardt is racing to stay in the top 10 in points -- and earn a guaranteed spot in the Chase -- had bad finishes. Without a victory this season, Earnhardt needs to stay in the top 10 or risk missing the Chase.
He caught a break early at Watkins Glen when he was on pit road as the caution came out, allowing him to move into fourth when many others pitted during that caution. Track position has been pivotal this season and Earnhardt rode it for about 30 laps. Some pit strategy went against him later and crew chief Steve Letarte went with a safe route, as he explained to Earnhardt late in the race on the radio.
"Our strategy is the aggressive one and I just aborted [that] when we saw the trouble with some of the points guys,'' Letarte told Earnhardt on the radio during the final caution. "You know the deal. I'm just calling the best race for us. Racing our own race.''
After the race, Letarte radioed Earnhardt and said: "That's what we had to do.''
When the checkered flag flew, Earnhardt had his first top-15 finish at Watkins Glen in six years, moved up a spot to ninth in the season standings and stretched his advantage over many of his closest pursuers.
Consider the misfortune that struck others racing Earnhardt for a spot in the top 10:
Tony Stewart. He entered the race ninth in the season standings and a point ahead of Earnhardt. Stewart lost 20 spots on the last lap when the bumping and beating sent him off the track, through the inner loop grass and sliding into a wall. As the field passed, so did Stewart's advantage on Earnhardt. Stewart now trails Earnhardt by 11 points.
Denny Hamlin. He entered the race 23 points behind Earnhardt, but a mechanical issue sent Hamlin's car screaming into the tire barrier headfirst and out of the race. Hamlin finished 36th. This only added to the misery of the engine woes he's had. He trails Earnhardt by 44 points.
Greg Biffle. He entered the race 44 points behind Earnhardt. Biffle ran out of fuel, fell off the lead lap and finished 31st, a lap down. He trails Earnhardt by 60 points.
Paul Menard. He entered the race 54 points behind Earnhardt. Menard blew a tire and crashed, finishing 32nd. He trails Earnhardt by 71 points.
What's important to note is how much Earnhardt's advantage on all those drivers grew after Monday's race. Any advantage helps as the series races at Michigan, Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond before the Chase field is set. While Clint Bowyer, now 11th in the standings, did gain five points on Earnhardt, he still trails Junior by 36, and making up five points a race won't get him past Earnhardt before the Chase field is set.
Based on how Earnhardt and his closest pursuers ran at Michigan, Bristol and Richmond earlier this year -- the series races at Atlanta only once a year -- Earnhardt could be in good shape. While Stewart, Bowyer, Hamlin, Biffle and Menard have outscored him at the three tracks, Earnhardt's lead is strong enough that unless he has a truly bad day at Atlanta, he'll make the Chase based on how he's run this season.
That performance has played a key role in keeping Earnhardt's attitude positive as he slid from third to 10th in the points. Earnhardt's confidence has yo-yoed in years past but he's been better this season at not letting rough days ruin his outlook.
Last December, Earnhardt admitted that "my biggest problem ... is my confidence. I know that I've outran and beat these guys that I compete with each week, and I just have to remember that the potential is there. I believe in myself, but there's a swagger that you have to have.''
While Earnhardt might not be in full swagger mode, that he's survived a six-race stretch in June and July without a top-10 is a pivotal turning point.
"I'm pushing myself pretty hard right now but confidence helps,'' Earnhardt said a few days before the Watkins Glen race. "Confidence is a big help. Any time you go into a race weekend and you're not there confidence-wise, it sets such a tone for the rest of the weekend. So you have to try to remind yourself to stay positive and be upbeat even when you think the task at hand looks impossible or too difficult.''
Just as important as the performance has been working with crew chief Steve Letarte. While many Earnhardt fans applauded car owner Rick Hendrick for breaking up Earnhardt's pairing with crew chief Lance McGrew after last season, there were some reservations about putting Earnhardt with Letarte. The move has worked well, however, matching Letarte's cheerleading style with a driver who needs that.
"No matter what happens during the day, during practice, whatever, when things look bleak, [Letarte] don't change his tone, he don't change his opinion about things, he don't change his expectations and outlook on the day,'' Earnhardt said. "I've learned a lot just being around him.
"You see, I thought confidence kind of came and went on its own accord. I thought it was elusive. I thought that one day I would just do something and, boom, I would have confidence. I'd go run somewhere or win a race or run in the top five and confidence would just happen, but it doesn't. You've got to work on it. You've got to believe in yourself. You have to work on it. That just don't happen on its own.
"You've got to do things and show in your actions to get people to believe in you. You can talk all you want to talk. You have to show up, show up on time and show up with your game face on all the time like Rick says all the time.''
Monday was such an example. As long as Earnhardt can keep doing that and avoid any major pitfalls in the next month, he appears headed toward the Chase.
Dustin Long covers NASCAR for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., The Roanoke (Va.) Times and the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C. His blog can be found here.
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