Earnhardt feeling better about title hopes

Sep 24 2011 - 4:04pm

LOUDON, N.H. -- Look at those standings. For once during the Chase, it's Hendrick Motorsports drivers Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon looking up at teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Earnhardt is in fifth place in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship standings, only 13 points behind leader Kevin Harvick. Earnhardt, NASCAR's most popular driver, is three spots ahead of Johnson and six ahead of Gordon.

Earnhardt finished third last week at Chicagoland for his fourth top-five of the season -- and ended a five-race skid where he finished no better than 14th.

"I think we made a pretty serious impact last week and we just kind of need to keep that momentum going," Earnhardt said.

Earnhardt finished 15th in NASCAR's first stop at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in July.

He wanted to build on last week's finish with a solid qualifying effort and will start 12th in the No. 88 Chevrolet on Sunday.

His first-year pairing with Steve Letarte was an instant smash, with the team in contention for several victories earlier this season.

Earnhardt thought he was going to win at Martinsville Speedway until Harvick passed him with four laps left for the win. He settled for second, which started a string of three top-10 finishes. Then came heartbreak at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He led on the final lap before his gas tank ran dry and finished seventh. He followed at Kansas with another second, then sixth at Pocono Raceway.

He fall into a seven-race slump after that and was teetering on the edge of falling out of Chase contention. He held on to enter the 10-race playoff seeded 10th.

Earnhardt has not won since Michigan in June 2008, his first season with Hendrick Motorsports. Earnhardt's career-best finish in the Sprint Cup standings was third in 2003. Under the Chase format, he finished fifth in 2004 and 2006.

After missing the Chase the last two seasons, he's poised to make a legitimate run at his first Cup championship. Owner Rick Hendrick believes in him, too. Hendrick and Earnhardt agreed earlier this month on a five-year contract extension.

"When Rick makes a commitment like he made with me, it makes you want to go out there and work hard and do the best job can," Earnhardt said. "Makes you want him to make you proud."

Winning the championship would do the trick.

"It's time to put it all out there and see what happens," Earnhardt said.

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RULE CHANGE: NASCAR's version of the postseason has brought a tweak of the rules at Talladega Superspeedway.

NASCAR ordered an increase in the size of the restrictor plate that will be used in the Oct. 23 race. The larger holes in the carburetor plates should lead to an increase of horsepower that could make the cars 2 to 3 mph faster.

NASCAR also ordered an adjustment on the pop-off valve in the cooling system that should lower the maximum water temperature in engines. A threat of overheating could prevent cars from staying hooked together for too long.

The changes came as part of an effort to limit the two-car tandem racing that has dominated at the track.

"I think with the new rules, it's a step to make us pass more," Jimmie Johnson said. "I don't think we are going to be able to stay connected as long. Any time you put a bigger plate on the cars it allows for a larger closing rate with more opportunities to pass with more power."

The larger restrictor plate could push speeds over 200 mph, but the combination of the pop-off valve change likely means the cars won't be able to stay locked together for as many laps.

"I don't think we'll be staying together as long we'll be changing out more often which could lead to us being in a big pack like some of the fans want to see," Johnson said. "We'll get down there and see what happens. I don't care what the rules are. I learned a long time ago to stop worrying about that stuff. I just go."

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GETS HIS KICKS: Joey Logano hit the track and field this week -- the football field.

Logano, of Middletown, Conn., and his Joe Gibbs Racing crew chief Greg Zipadelli, of Berlin, Conn., returned to their northeastern roots on Thursday when they visited the New England Patriots. The paired toured Gillette Stadium, met players and staff and checked out the three Super Bowl trophies.

Logano even attempted some field goals after getting tips from Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski.

"I'm going to stick to driving race cars and not kicking any time soon," he said.

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OWNER RACES: Michael Waltrip Racing co-owner Rob Kauffman will race the No. 61 AF Corse Ferrari 430 Italia in the Petit Le Mans sports car race Oct. 1 at Road Atlanta. Co-drivers Rui Aguas and Justin Bell will join Kauffman for the 1,000-mile, 10-hour endurance classic that serves as a finale to the American Le Mans season.

"Our plan is to expand our sports car racing in the United States," Kauffman said. "Running in this race is a big step toward that goal."

Kauffman joined Aguas and MWR co-owner and founder Michael Waltrip at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June. Transmission failure ended their race after 16 hours in the French classic.

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