RICHMOND, Va. - Dale Earnhardt Jr. had about as low-key of a weekend as possible for, well, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Safely tucked into the NASCAR Nextel Cup playoffs in third place before the 26th and final regular-season race at Richmond International Raceway on Saturday, he had no position to fret over, no teammate close enough to a postseason berth to help along.
His No.8 Chevrolet sustained only cosmetic body damage in a multi-car wreck on Lap 180 when Jimmie Johnson's No.48 Chevrolet lifted it off the track and another car sent him into the grass. Thereafter, Earnhardt avoided the chaos of a wild race full of what Johnson called "desperate guys" and finished second.
"The key tonight? Probably a sledgehammer," Earnhardt said after his 12th top five of the season. "We beat it up pretty bad, but it still drove really well and somehow all four tires were still rolling the same direction."
From that point, Earnhardt had plenty of time to figure out how he is going to win a first championship in the next 10 races.
"If you look back over the last three or four years, we (run) better at the end of the season," said Earnhardt, who has four wins, 13 top fives and 18 top 10s in final 10-race spans since 2001. "We have a history of running better at the last third of the season point. I feel pretty good about it. I think we're going to a couple of tracks we run good at.
"We're going to test real hard at four other racetracks. If we get through Kansas and Homestead with good finishes - those are the two tracks that are going to make it or break it for our championship hopes."
Earnhardt has finished better than 18th just once at Kansas and never better than 15th at Homestead-Miami.
CLOSER STILL: Bruno Junqueira's second-place finish on Sunday at Laguna Seca reduced Tampa resident Sebastien Bourdais' lead in the Champ Car driver standings to 24 points heading into the final three races of the season, setting up an interesting battle between the often-antagonistic Newman/Haas teammates. Bourdais finished eighth on after cutting a tire, further reducing his lead from the 59-point bulge he held three races ago.
Bourdais has a win and eighth- and 15th-place finishes in the past three races while Junqueira has a first, second and third.
"I hope it's going to reverse after Vegas," Junqueira said of the next race on Sept. 25. "The championship is very close. If you have two, three bad weekends, and the other guy (has) good weekends, it can reverse. And that's what happened. I was keeping the lead of the championship. I lost it. He opened a big gap. Now it's my time to have this sprint until the end. I hope I can keep having great results and catch him."
SPOOKY REPRISE: Buddy Rice's flip at Chicagoland on Sunday was an eerie reminder of Kenny Brack's tumble toward the finish line in October at Texas, but new safety and aerodynamic gear mandated for Indy cars this spring might have kept the No. 15 Team Rahal entry from disintegrating.
Rice, who replaced Brack this season after the Swede broke his back, sternum, ribs, right leg and both ankles, walked away from his crash after the car skidded upside down.
"Actually the crash wasn't as bad as I thought it might be," Rice said. "The car moved up in the air and I just grabbed my seat belts and held on."
Brack continues to approach his rehabilitation cautiously after deciding not to make an attempt at the Indianapolis 500, a race Rice won. Brack plans to return to racing Sunday at a Carrera Cup Porsche race in Sweden.
Rice flipped when his left rear tire touched the right front tire of Darren Manning' s No. 10 Target Chip Ganassi Racing entry. Manning replaced Tony Renna this season when the DeLand native was killed in October in a tire test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
SPARK PLUGS: Rookie Brendan Gaughan is being pressed quietly to pick up his performance in the final 10 Nextel Cup races by his Penske Racing South team. The first-year Cup driver and veteran of the Truck series apparently is being held to the same standard as Ryan Newman, who has 10 wins, 41 top fives, 23 poles and a rookie of the year award in his third full Cup season for Penske. Gaughan has denied there is a performance clause in his contract.