HAMPTON, Ga. – For drivers such as Dale Earnhardt Jr., patience is definitely a virtue at this point in the season.
Then again, there’s a sense of urgency with the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship just two races away.
Only three drivers are assured of being in the 12-car playoff – five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer and Matt Kenseth – but the outlook could be a lot clearer after tonight’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
While Earnhardt, ranked seventh in the points, is solidly positioned to maintain his spot in the playoff, he knows major problems at Atlanta and next weekend’s race in Richmond could knock him out.
We’re just going to have to keep an eye on everybody around us, Earnhardt said. I feel pretty good. I love Atlanta. I love Richmond. Those are good tracks for us. We have a chance to be successful, so I feel pretty confident.
No one is feeling the heat more than Brad Keselowski.
The defending Cup champion has yet to win this season and ranks 11th in the standings, making it possible he won’t even get a chance to defend his crown in the final 10 races of the season.
Quite honestly, our backs are against the wall, Keselowski said. But these are the times where great teams step up and make something happen, great drivers step up and make a play. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to prove what we’re worth.
Johnson, who had an unprecedented run of titles from 2006-10, leads the standings and clinched his spot in the Chase three weeks ago. Bowyer wrapped up his automatic spot last week. Kenseth – who has a series-high five victories – is assured of at least a wild card, one of two spots that go to the drivers ranked 11th to 20th with the most wins.
Others are close. Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick can clinch their spots before they head to Richmond, while Kyle Busch – who missed out on the Chase a year ago – is in good position this time with three wins and the fifth-most points.
Earnhardt, Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle and Joey Logano are next in line, though not nearly as comfortable about their chances of advancing. Right on their heels are Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon and Martin Truex.
Truex is 14th in the standings but has a win – which gives him the edge in the wild-card race over the three drivers right ahead of him. That could change in Atlanta, which is why Truex is racing with a cast after breaking his right wrist in a crash at Bristol last weekend.