Thursday, June 21, 2018
Sports

Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Talladega is race favorite, even bigger crowd favorite

TALLADEGA, Ala. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. has struggled in the second round of NASCAR's playoffs and needs a good run today at Talladega Superspeedway to avoid elimination in the Chase for the Championship.

Luckily for Earnhardt, he's pretty good at Talladega.

And he has a proven car for a restrictor-plate race.

The No. 88 Chevrolet that Earnhardt will race in today's Sprint Cup Campingworld.com 500 won a qualifying race at Daytona in February, won here in May, then won at Daytona again in July.

He likely needs another win today to reach the eight-man third round of the Chase.

"It's real intense, there's no denying the intensity and the pressure it puts on drivers like myself to be in a cutoff situation where you're eliminated if things don't go perfectly," Earnhardt said Friday.

He is 11th in the 12-driver field after subpar races in the second round. He ran 28th at Charlotte and 21st — lowest of all Chase drivers — last week at Kansas.

But Talladega is his track, and the crowd is firmly behind him.

They root for him in these grandstands like no other driver, and the roar when he charges to the front can make the ground shake. Earnhardt is a six-time Talladega winner — tied for most among active drivers with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon — so having this track play such a big role in his title chances gives him confidence.

"We've won here this year and we've ran good and won at Daytona over the last several years," he said. "So when we come to all the plate tracks, we feel confident we can do well and feel confident in the car."

Earnhardt, who starts fifth, sits on the Chase bubble with Kyle Busch (ninth), Ryan Newman (10th) and Matt Kenseth (12th).

Yet nobody heads into this one feeling safe except Joey Logano, who has won the past two weeks and is the only one guaranteed to be in the third round.

"There are certainly going to be some people that race scared and racing scared, to me, means sometimes you race not to win, but to not lose as far as the points are concerned," said Brad Keselowski, who is seventh in points and won this race last year to stay in the playoffs.

Gordon on pole: Jeff Gordon led a Hendrick Motorsports rout in qualifying Saturday to win the pole for his final race at Talladega. Gordon led teammates Kasey Kahne and Jimmie Johnson in a sweep of the top three starting spots at the 2.66-mile supserpseedway. Gordon also applauded the move, used in Saturday's truck series race, to try just once for a green-white-checkered finish at Talladega rather than three. "There is a balance between the excitement and entertainment to give the fans what they came here for and putting drivers at risk," he said.

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