Monday, March 19, 2018

Earnhardt at ease on Michigan International Speedway

BROOKLYN, Mich. — A year ago, Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally ended his long losing streak. He left Michigan International Speedway with hopes of more victories to come, maybe even a Sprint Cup championship.

He hasn't won since.

"We want to win numerous races and multiple races in a season," Earnhardt said on the eve of today's Quicken Loans 400. "We want that to be the norm. We want that to be what is expected. When we first started working together we were trying to figure out how to get a 15th-place combination into the top 10, and we were happy when we did.

"Now when we run in the top 10 it's just another weekend — and what do we have to do to win?"

Whenever NASCAR's top series comes to Michigan, Earnhardt is the center of attention. He won at MIS last June after 143 races without a victory. His most recent win before that was also at Michigan, in 2008, so the Sprint Cup's twice-yearly visits always seem to present an opportunity for Earnhardt and his No. 88 Chevrolet.

Earnhardt's victory last year wasn't a shock. He'd been running well for a while, working his way back among the elite drivers, so after a convincing performance at MIS, he could credibly eye a run at a series championship.

But concussion problems derailed his chances in the Chase, and although he began 2013 with five straight top-10 finishes and briefly led the points standings, he has slipped to fourth since then.

Earnhardt was third at Pocono last weekend, but the pressure is mounting for him to take advantage of a return to Michigan.

"It's just a simple race track that has not got a lot of challenges. It's very easily laid out and understandable for a driver. It really comes down to just getting your car to work," Earnhardt said.

Jimmie Johnson has never won a Cup race at MIS, but he enters today leading the standings by 51 points over Carl Edwards. Johnson has three victories already this year, and another spot in the Chase looks like a formality.

"A lot can still go wrong if you hit a stretch of bad races. I feel like our wins will lock us in the Chase, but my mind is still on running well and getting ready for the Chase," said Johnson, who qualified 17th.

Edwards won the pole and Earnhardt qualified 12th, while defending Cup champ Brad Keselowski was 16th.

These two weeks — Pocono followed by Michigan — worked well for Earnhardt last year, and he'd love a repeat.

"I think there are certain teams that are just right on the brink of making things really, really good," said Jeff Gordon, 11th in the standings. "I thought Junior had a very impressive run last week. He was very competitive and it was great timing for them because this is a track that I know he likes and does well at."

Still, Earnhardt, 38, said he doesn't feel any urgency.

"There is a seize-the-moment kind of feeling because I'm in such good equipment around such good people," he said. "I don't feel like there is a clock in the background ticking away that is annoying me."

. fast facts

Sprint Cup points

After 14 of 36 races. The top 10 plus two wild cards after 26 races make the Chase for the Championship.

Driver Pts. Back

Jimmie Johnson 521—

Carl Edwards 470 51

Clint Bowyer 452 69

D. Earnhardt Jr. 439 82

Kevin Harvick 434 87

Matt Kenseth 418 103

Kyle Busch 412 109

Kasey Kahne 400 121

Brad Keselowski 398 123

Greg Biffle 395 126

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Published: 03/18/18