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Earnhardt Jr.: A Thin Line Divides Risky, Reckless

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, September 27 2012

Sprint Cup driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. discussed a risky subject this week. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Brian Lawdermilk)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

With hopes for a comeback victory about to board a charter flight out of town Monday night, the Seattle Seahawks took a chance. And it paid.

With his hopes for a 2012 Sprint Cup championship fading faster than a Wal-Mart t-shirt, Dale Earnhardt Jr. cannot take a similar chance.

For a couple of reasons. First, NASCAR has not decided to put amateur half-wits in officials uniforms.

Second, Cup seasons have become 36-race-long exercises in chance taking and there are simply no more risky moves sitting unopened on the race-shop shelves, in the pit-road tool boxes or inside drivers’ heads or guts.

Third, taking goofy chances hasn’t worked.

That was what an admittedly in-championship-trouble Earnhardt Jr. said during a teleconference with the media this week.

“I don’t think you can take any more chances than we’re taking and get away with it on the track or off the track,” the Hendrick Motorsports driver said.

Earnhardt had a bit of a breakout season this year. He won at Michigan to free himself from a winless skid that had stretched back to 2008.

More impressively, he moved into the top-five in points after finishing third at Auto Club Speedway in the fifth

The numbers do not call for major risk-taking, Dale Earnhardt Jr. says. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

race of the season. He stayed in the top five until the standings were re-seeded prior to the start of the Chase.

Earnhardt Jr. and his Steve Letarte-led team did that by staying consistent. He admits that.

But do not, he said, confuse striving for consistency with being averse to taking chances.

“I got asked this same question about 15 races into the season; ‘Were we going to take any chances?’ ” Earnhardt said this week. “We were viewed, I think, as a team that was safe and drove conservative, made conservative calls. What that did for us was really keep us in the top two or three in points throughout the year. Being smart, being conservative was putting points on the board, which wins championships. Then we kept getting asked about taking chances, when we’re going to take chances, why didn’t we do this, that.

“Once we got locked into the Chase, or felt like we were locked into the Chase, about five races before Richmond, we started taking chances. We started finishing 14th, 15th, 20th, 10th.”

In the two Chase races, Earnhardt has slipped up a bit. He finished eighth at Chicagoland two weeks ago and then 13th Sunday in New Hampshire.

As a result, he finds himself in tough championship shape. This weekend he will start the race at Dover – not a favorite track, he said – 26 points behind leader and teammate Jimmie Johnson. He is 11 points behind sixth-place Clint Bowyer.

On Tuesday, the question about taking chances in an effort to climb back into contention resurfaced. Resurfaced rather ironically.

“Now two races into the Chase,” Earnhardt said patiently, “people look at the last eight or 10 races we ran and say, You haven’t been that consistent, what’s the deal? Why aren’t you consistent? What are you going to do to get more consistent?

“So I think we have to be smart and conservative and use good judgment when we’re out on the racetrack, trying to

Consistency will remain the game plan for the No. 88 car. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Brian Lawdermilk)

get the best finish we can get.”

Hail Marys? In NASCAR, it’s better to be smart, he said. Consistently smart.

“If somebody says, ‘Look, man, you can finish eighth today, there’s a one in a million chance that you can pit now and get four tires with 10 laps to go, trying to finish seventh, fifth, whatever, I mean, you just can’t take those – if it doesn’t work out, you’re going to wind up 25th.’  You can’t take those chances, do those kind of things that are foolish.”

So, Earnhardt Jr. said, “We’ll go back to being smart, do the best we can do, what we’ve done the last two weeks. Hasn’t been up to our standards, but that was the best we had that day. We’ll have to work the next eight and work as hard as we can and see what happens in those eight races.

“I don’t think we can start getting reckless. Really, I mean, we run as hard as we can run. It ain’t like I can take any more risks on the racetrack than I can take other than see if the car can go through the corner wide open, which I know it won’t, it would be a foolish risk.

“We can’t come down pit road and not take tires because that puts us out first on the racetrack. We’d be in 10th or 20th place in four or five laps with everybody behind us on new tires. Those are kind of foolish. I don’t really know what else we can do. So we’ll just try to be smart over the next eight and try not to get careless. I think that’s the best thing we can do.”

Finally, Junior said, even he and his team were in a risk-taking mood, this is not the time to do it.

The numbers, he said, are not looking friendly right now but, they are also not being perceived as terminal by his team.

“The guys that we’re trying to catch haven’t been very inconsistent,” he said. “You got eight races left. You got to go in there with a good attitude. You got to have the body language and everything where your confidence is high so your team around you feels the same way, and everybody works hard. You got to keep trying.

“Even if things don’t go exactly the way you want, there’s eight chances to win some races, eight chances to have some things to celebrate, have some good things happen to you.

“Here we are trying to race for the championship, that’s our main focus. But we would love to win some races during the process, and that would give us an opportunity.”

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, September 27 2012
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