New attitude drives Earnhardt Jr.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has transformed from an also ran hero to legitimate contender for the Chase for...

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has transformed from an also ran hero to legitimate contender for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship. (REUTERS FILES/Joe Skipper)

Dean McNulty, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:40 PM ET

TORONTO - It will be a line up of all the usual suspects next Sunday for the start of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship at Chicagoland Speedway.

In fact 11 of the 12 drivers who made it into the dazzling dozen after Saturday night’s Wonderful Pistachios 400 at Richmond International Raceway have been there before: Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin.

Brad Keselowski will be the lone rookie, so to speak, to challenge for NASCAR’s ultimate prize in 2011.

But the real story out of Richmond was the transformation of Earnhardt from an also ran hero to legitimate contender.

The book on Earnhardt — who remains NASCAR’s most popular driver — has always been that he was loaded with talent but woefully short on mental toughness.

In other words, when the going got tough for the No. 88 Chevrolet driver, he went the other way.

His pairing this season at Hendrick Motorsports with crew chief Steve Letarte, however, has changed Earnhardt’s attitude.

When the team experienced some bad luck, and driver mistakes past the half way point this season, Letarte never let Earnhardt get down on himself. He pushed him to hang in there.

So when he got into a wreck — and all but out of the Chase race — just eight laps in at Richmond, the old Earnhardt might have packed his bags and coasted the rest of the evening, but on this night he fought back, eventually finishing 16th and earning a berth in the Chase for the first time in three seasons.

And Earnhardt attributed it to his new found mental toughness.

He said he was never worried about quitting on the team after the wreck, even when it looked like Keselowski might steal his Chase spot by winning the race.

“I felt like if we were a good enough team, we’d get the job done,” Earnhardt said. “Brad would have had to run his ass off to win the race, to run in the top five to make it tough on us.

“He almost did that, but I felt good. I knew my team could fix the car good enough, and if everything fell the right way for us as far as the cautions, getting the lucky dogs and getting an opportunity to work on the car, we’d be fine.”

Earnhardt said he knew the team had a good car and that it could overcome the damage that left it limping so early in the evening.

“I could run good for about ten laps until the tires would go away, and then we had too much (tire wear) and it was wearing out the right front tire,” he said. “We got lucky, got the lucky dog a bunch, and ended up finishing 15th somehow.

“We’ll just go see how we can do in the Chase.”

Earnhardt acknowledged that in the past he might have doubted his abilities under similar circumstances, but not this season, not with his solid relationship with Letarte.

“I feel like I’m a good enough driver to be in the Chase; my team is good enough to be there,” he said. “As a group, I think we’re good enough to be in the top 10, and I can look back over the season and just easily think of several instances where we cost ourselves 10 or 15 points and made this situation difficult this weekend.

“Had we been more conscious and smarter at certain times we wouldn’t have had to even worry about it this weekend. But we’re a good team, and I’m proud to carry my sponsors and HMS in the Chase.”

Earnhardt is also buoyed by the fact that Letarte has told him that he and the engineers have been working on some race set-ups that should give the No. 88 car more speed for the 10 Chase races.

“I don’t know if any of that stuff is really going to make us faster, but we’ll go in there with a good attitude,” he said.

NUTS & BOLTS

NASCAR SPRINT CUP

For the record Kevin Harvick won the Wonderful Pistachios 400 at Richmond International Raceway on Saturday night in the No. 29 Richard Childress Chevrolet.

But the race was all about setting up the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship.

Some drivers like Kurt Busch in the No. 22 Penske Dodge and Jimmie Johnson in the No. 48 Hendrick Chevrolet renewed hostilities with the promise of more to come in NASCAR’s version of playoffs.

Others, like Jeff Gordon in the No. 24 Hendrick Chevrolet and Harvick, showed they are at the top of their games with everything on the line.

In the race Harvick bested Gordon in the battle of final pit stops and held on for the win in spirited duel with Carl Edwards in the No. 99 Roush Fenway Ford.

Gordon ran third, followed by David Ragan and Kurt Busch.

FORMULA 1

If there was ever any doubt about the abilities of Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel they were dispelled Sunday at Monza in the Italian Grand Prix.

After being passed before reaching Turn 1 by the charging Ferrrari of Fernando Alonso, Vettel eventually caught the Spanish driver, passed him and never looked back, claiming his eighth win of the 2011 world championship.

The safety car came out on lap 1 after a spectacular crash when Vitantonio Liuzzi slid into the first corner backwards taking out Nico Rosberg and Vitali Petrov.

“It has been an incredible year so far ... as a team we’ve got ourselves in a very good position,” Vettel said.

He is now 112 points ahead of Alonso in the championship.

Jenson Button finished in second place and Alonso held off Lewis Hamilton to finish third.


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