WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — You can’t wipe the smile off the face of Dale Earnhardt Jr., not even at a road course.
With five races before the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship begins, Earnhardt is in unfamiliar territory as the series gets set for the second and final road race of the season at Watkins Glen International on Sunday — he’s perched atop the points standings.
A year ago at The Glen Earnhardt was 10th, just one point ahead of eventual champion Tony Stewart. The top 10 drivers in the points and two wild-card teams qualify for NASCAR’s version of a postseason.
“Coming here in 10th place just trying to hang on to a spot in the Chase is really, really tough, especially for someone like myself who is more cold than hot (here),” Earnhardt said Friday as he waited for a steady rain to stop so Cup practice could begin. “We’ve had good tests. We’re feeling positive about our chances of having a good run.
“We struggled at Sonoma and we struggled in our test earlier in the season, too,” said Earnhardt, who qualified 19th and came home 23rd on the circuit’s other road course in June. “We kept working at it and made a lot of gains, gained a lot of speed. I’m excited to see how it’s going to pay off this weekend. I feel pretty confident we’ll be able to put up an effort we can be proud of.”
Earnhardt, who has nine top-five finishes and 15 top-10s, leads Matt Kenseth by a scant five points, with Greg Biffle another point back and five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson only eight points behind.
Because of his impressive consistency this year, Earnhardt finds himself in a unique spot.
“We can take gambles. It is real tight,” Earnhardt said of the top four in points. “We could walk out of here in fifth pretty easily if things were to go bad for us. I know that going in. I’ve prepared myself mentally for all things. You have to.”
In 12 starts at Watkins Glen, Earnhardt has qualified in the top 10 three times but still is seeking the first road course win of his career. He has two top-five finishes and three top-10s at The Glen.
The rain forced NASCAR to push back Cup practice until late afternoon and Earnhardt was only 28th fastest. Qualifying for Sunday’s Finger Lakes 355 is scheduled for late Saturday morning.
“This race you can kind of just throw it all out there,” Earnhardt said. “We were really conservative all year long, and we feel like we can definitely, in the position we’re in, gamble a lot more ... to try to win races like a lot of these guys do. We just kind of played it safe to make sure we were going to make the Chase. That’s the first thing. You don’t want to miss the Chase being foolish.
“If we fall back in points because we made a few mistakes or a gamble that didn’t pay off, it’s no big deal. We know the kind of season that we’ve had. We’ve got a lot to be proud of. I think mentally we can go into the Chase pretty excited about our chances. Hopefully, we can make some of those gambles pay off.”
Earnhardt left Indianapolis Motor Speedway two weeks ago with the points lead after a fourth-place finish. It was his best career finish at the venerable track, where he often has struggled. Earnhardt said he was proud of that and called it symbolic of how well the team has done.
His enthusiasm appears unbridled. When Earnhardt’s consistency was stopped last week at Pocono by a faulty transmission, as soon as he pulled into the garage for repairs he jumped out and began jacking up his No. 88 Chevy before his crew arrived.
“I’ve always worked on cars,” Earnhardt said. “I got back to the garage first and I knew my guys were moments away, but they weren’t there just yet. I thought that we needed to get back out as fast as we could. I thought I could cut some time off that process by getting the car up so that when they got there they could get right under it. I know my way around the shop, so it felt natural to me.”
Earnhardt, who had finished on the lead lap of every race this season to tie Jeff Gordon’s NASCAR mark of 21 straight, finished 32nd, 18 laps behind winner Gordon, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate.
The four-time champion didn’t see Earnhardt’s expertise with the jack. He was impressed, nonetheless.
“I would never have done that,” Gordon said. “It just tells you he knows enough about the cars that he felt like it was a linkage that could get fixed quick and the team wasn’t prepared for it. He was just trying to give them a little head start.”
To be considered a legitimate championship contender, it’s all about wins, especially in the Chase. Earnhardt is well aware of that, and those special moments have been scarce since he won a career-high six races in 2004.
Earnhardt had lost 76 races in a row when he won at Michigan four years ago, and his victory at Michigan this year snapped a winless streak of 143 races.
Still, despite that lone victory this year, he figures to be a factor until season’s end.
“Barring any catastrophe, as long as we don’t have the same thing that happened last week happen every week, we should find our way into the Chase,” Earnhardt said. “That’s been a big load off our shoulders ... and not have to worry about anything too far out into the future. We can just forget about the Chase for a moment, concentrate on being fast, concentrate on what we’re doing ... try to find more speed and enjoy it.
“I’ve had fun all year. That’s a good feeling.”