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Pssst! Earnhardt Jr. is in Chase contention

But today's race is crucial for his title chances.

By BRANT JAMES
Published November 12, 2006


AVONDALE, Ariz. - There are few things Dale Earnhardt Jr. can do in a stealthy manner. Trip to the store: crowd. Walk through the garage: melee.

But somehow, NASCAR's most popular driver is quietly putting himself in a position to finally win his first Nextel Cup championship.

The excitement should be palpable, the buzz deafening, but Jimmie Johnson's dogged pursuit of a first title and Matt Kenseth's attempt to run him down has reduced Earnhardt to a subplot.

Judging by his demeanor Saturday after practice at Phoenix International Raceway, Earnhardt isn't concerned about making up the 78 points that separate him and Johnson with just two races left because "with the points system we have now, I have a lot of opportunities to win championships."

"I'll have more opportunities with this system than with the old system," he said. "With the old system, you had the guy that got out front and got away."

That said, he said today's Checker Auto Parts 500, the penultimate Nextel Cup race of the season, is "make or break." Sort of.

"If we really do good and we're close to the championship, it's important," he said. "If we don't do good, it's not that important."

Judging by the swirl of activity around his No. 8 Chevrolet after practice, his crew is treating this race as very important. Crew chief Tony Eury Jr. said his driver needs to be within 40 points after today, no easy task considering Johnson has finishes of second or better in the past four races.

"If you're going to have a chance to win the title, you can't go to Homestead hoping guys hit the fence and give you 70 points," he said. "We need to make up 30 points here and we've got to do it by racing."

Earnhardt raced himself into position to pressure Johnson and Kenseth, who is 17 points behind, when he overcame a hard brush with the wall and a bout with the flu to finish sixth last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.

"Any time you wreck a car and you can fix it and run well, it makes it exciting to have that kind of group of guys around you," Eury said.

"Normally (you) don't get lucky like that (with) the car still driving competitively (afterward)," Earnhardt said. "We can't expect to hit the wall like that every time and have a car that's competitive. As much as we were good, we were lucky too."

If not for an admittedly overaggressive move at Martinsville that spun him from seventh with three laps left to a 22nd-place finish, Earnhardt could be leading the standings. Aside from Martinsville, he has finished fourth, third and sixth the past month.

Earnhardt has two wins at Phoenix - most recently in 2004 - but finished 40th and 23rd the past two races. The problem, Eury said, is rules changes that have negated Earnhardt's uncanny ability to gain an advantage by tearing through corners.

"It's changed over the year with the tire," Eury said. "We used to have a really good setup that turned real well in the center, and ever since they changed the tire and the air pressure around here you have to go to a different ball game."

Earnhardt, 32, is as game for a championship run as anyone. He's here, he said, so he might as well win it. But if not, he knows there will be more chances.

"That kind of relaxes me a little bit by not getting it this year," he said. "We're obviously doing everything we can do. ... I feel like if not this year, then next year. Each year is more fruitful for us as a team."