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EARNHARDT JR. ENDURES MISS

If you are reading this, the sun did indeed rise again this morning. Even after the express train - the Nextel Cup Chase for the Championship - left Dale Earnhardt Jr. at the proverbial station.

Maybe NASCAR's runaway most popular driver missing its playoffs isn't so shocking now that it has happened two of the past four seasons. He missed the 12-driver cutoff by 198 points after finishing 30th Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway.

Maybe this failure validates his decision to leave the team his father founded for him and his siblings, Dale Earnhardt Inc. - after nine seasons, 17 Cup wins but no real title threats - for Hendrick Motorsports, which has six championships and put three of its four drivers in the Chase.

"I guess you're always going to be empty because you didn't win a championship (at DEI)," said crew chief Tony Eury Jr., who will follow his cousin to Hendrick, "but you also have to look at how bright the future is and how many championships we can win with Mr. Hendrick."

Earnhardt failed to make the scenario-defying leap from 13th into the Chase but his fate was not decided Saturday. He lost valuable points and a possible boost Aug. 19 at Michigan, driving past his pit box on a key green-flag sequence on Lap 168 of 203. He fell from the top 15 into the middle of the pack and had to hustle to finish 12th. That was costly as Kurt Busch, then 12th in points, won for the second time in three races.

Earnhardt called the mistake "my fault, totally," but his team was culpable in engine failures at Indianapolis and Watkins Glen as he finished 34th and 42nd, respectively. In between, he won the pole and finished second at Pocono. After Michigan he was fifth in consecutive races, two of his six best finishes of the season. But that could not erase a 128-point shortfall to 12th-place Kevin Harvick.

Earnhardt was quiet and resolved in the days leading to the regular-season finale, vocal and almost desperate during it, and drawn and emotional afterward. Friday, he talked about how stunned he would be to miss the cut again after being overtaken by Busch in the last several weeks. He said that with six races until the Chase "we felt there was no team around me we couldn't beat."

"It is just unfortunate," he said, "because I really feel like we should have made it. ... I am really disappointed that we weren't able to realize our potential."

Out of respect for the team and the crew he is leaving, Earnhardt assured a spirited effort for his last 10 races at DEI.

"I promised them that these last several races through the last half of the season, no matter what, we owed it to ourselves to race hard and work really hard," he said. "It would be foolish and uncharacteristic of my team to kind of skip along the rest of the season and ride it out."

Brant James can be reached at brant@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8804.

Nextel cup

Gearhead stats

From Saturday'sChevy Rock & Roll 400

Time of race: 3 hours, 16 minutes, 3 seconds

Average speed: 91.813 mph

Margin of victory: 3.007 seconds

Cautions: 12 for 48 laps

Lead changes: 15 among 10 drivers

Lap leaders: J. Gordon 1-25; Mears 26-31; Newman 32-64; Menard 65; J. Gordon 66-166; Edwards 167-181; Johnson 182-183; Hamlin 184-200; J. Gordon 201-235; Bowyer 236-239; J. Gordon 240-269; Stewart 270-296; Johnson 297-337; Petty 338-339; Johnson 340-400.

Complete race results, 7C

Points standings

Through 26 of 36 races. Only these drivers are eligible for the title in the 10-race Chase for the Championship:

Driver Pts. Bk.

1. Jimmie Johnson 5,060 -

2. Jeff Gordon 5,040 20

3. Tony Stewart 5,030 30

t4. Kurt Busch 5,020 40

t4. Carl Edwards 5,020 40

t6. Jeff Burton 5,010 50

t6. Kyle Busch 5,010 50

t6. Matt Kenseth 5,010 50

t6. Denny Hamlin 5,010 50

t6. Kevin Harvick 5,010 50

t6. Martin Truex 5,010 50

12. Clint Bowyer 5,000 60

Up next

Sylvania 300, 2 p.m. Sunday, New Hampshire International Raceway, Loudon.

TV: Ch.28

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