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Junior misses out on Chase
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is one spot short and Jimmie Johnson wins at Richmond.
By BRANT JAMES, Times Staff Writer
Published September 9, 2007
RICHMOND, Va. - Dale Earnhardt Jr. smelled opportunity as he fired his engine on pit road Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway. Or was it jasmine?
Whatever it was masked the odor of desperation. Earnhardt Jr. needed a Herculean personal effort and major help to gain 128 points and jump a spot to 12th in points and into the Nextel Cup Chase for the Championship in the final regular-season race. But Earnhardt Jr., starting 21st, was relaxed, radioing his crew to inquire about the intense smell of the cleaner used in his helmet.
Smells like a stripper, he said. That was his last last whiff of pleasantness.
Though he and his crew wrangled an ill-handling No.8 Chevrolet as high as second, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch avoided a potentially devastating sequence midway through to hold onto postseason berths. Earnhardt Jr.'s hopes were already dashed by the time he blew an engine with seven laps left and finished 30th.
Defending series champion Jimmie Johnson, meanwhile, continued a typical late summer burst by winning his second consecutive race and sixth of the season to lead the 12-driver field into the Chase on Sunday at Loudon, N.H.
Tony Stewart, who missed the Chase last season, was second, followed by rookie David Ragan, Jeff Gordon and Johnny Sauter in a race marred by 12 cautions and two red-flag periods.
Johnson will start the Chase with 5,060 points with 10 bonus points per win, followed by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon (5,040), Stewart, Carl Edwards, Busch, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex, Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Jeff Burton, Harvick and Clint Bowyer.
Four of the top five, excluding Edwards, are in the Chase.
"We're happy to be hitting our stride at this point in the season," Johnson said. "The summer was a bit of a struggle for us."
This season's tweaked Chase - with 12 drivers advancing for the first time - was the first in which no driver earned a berth in the final regular-season race.
Earnhardt's fortunes appeared to sweeten as he was running second and Ryan Newman's spin on Lap 239 prompted an accident that involved Harvick and Busch's cars. Busch's No.2 Dodge was rammed from behind by Juan Pablo Montoya, damaging his left rear. Harvick's No.29 Chevrolet had a grill packed with grass clumps and was spurting steam from an overflow valve as the field was red-flagged on pit road to allow the husk of Montoya's car to be carted away.
A large section of red-clad fans in the stands near Harvick's car began cheering, contemplating how Harvick's misfortune could benefit Earnhardt Jr. if his engine were to overheat.
"What's the crowd cheering about?" Harvick asked crew chief Todd Berrier almost naively. "Somebody boxing?"
Only he and Berrier knew his water pressure gauges read okay, meaning all he needed was to remove the greenery to return his car to working order. He and Busch then raced more conservatively but stayed well within their margins of error. Harvick came in needing to finish at least 32nd to clinch his spot and wound up seventh. Busch needed to come in 36th and wound up ninth.
As it turned out both would have made it; Earnhardt finished 198 points out of 12th place.
Chase drivers with something to gain raced hard, among them Bowyer, who spun on Lap200 when he tried to tuck under Hamlin and take the lead coming through Turn3. The only Chase driver without a victory this season, he finished 12th and fell from ninth to 12th in the points because seeding is done by bonus points for victories.
The 12 drivers in the 10-race season-ending Chase for the Championship, set after Saturday's race at Richmond.