JOLIET, ILL. - As the NASCAR Sprint Cup series preps for its first of 10 Chase for the Championship races on Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway it is time — again — to look at where Dale Earnhardt Jr., stands in the sport’s big picture.
There are some who suggest that Earnhardt has morphed into something of a clown prince of stock-car racing, who despite almost three full seasons without a victory in the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet still manages to hold onto NASCAR’s biggest and most vocal fan base.
He will start Sunday’s GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway seeded 10th of 12 Cup divers in the Chase. It will be his first trip to NASCAR’s version of playoffs since 2008.
But Earnhardt’s fame, fortune and family name affords him far greater leeway in saying what he thinks than any other driver on the circuit.
This week, for example, with NASCAR bosses trying their damndest to quell suspicions that last week’s final race of the regular season at Richmond International Raceway was compromised by possible collusion between Richard Childress Racing teammates Kevin Harvick and Paul Menard, Earnhardt suggested that he has skirted the rules lots of times to give himself and his team an advantage.
“We’re all human beings; so, yes,” he said in relation to a question if he had ever manipulated a caution to help his team. “Things will happen and things do happen and things like that probably do go on. As long as human beings are involved, there will be a certain level of corruption, you know.”
Had it been anybody but Earnhardt making such an admission, NASCAR would have had him in the big white hauler for a dressing down pronto. Maybe even a fine or a loss of points would have been involved.
Earnhardt continued that possibly he shouldn’t be saying such things with microphones turned on and cameras whirling.
“I’ve tried to help myself out by bringing out a caution so maybe that is about the same thing, I guess,” he said, laughing. “I got in trouble though. If you do anything like that, you just can’t admit it.”
On the subject of the ongoing feud between his HMS teammate — and five time Sprint Cup champion — Jimmie Johnson and Penske Racing’s Kurt Busch, Earnhardt left no doubt about is take on the pair.
“I have no curiosity to see how that plays out,” he said. “It bores the s--t out of me to be honest. It’s probably exciting to you guys; but, I’m concerned about my championship run and what I can do to be as good as I need to be.
“I’ve got my own damn problems to worry about. Not very interested. Sorry.”
Yet it would be a gross mistake to completely dismiss Earnhardt — on the basis of his comments on these issues — as a gadfly. He is deadly serious about his own career and wants it out there that — his most recent past aside — the No. 88 team is worthy of a Cup run this time around.
Earnhardt noted that the team has the best average finish on intermediate 11/2-mile oval racks — where five of the 10 Chase races will be held — of the 12 Cup contenders and that makes him a threat to win.
“Damn, somebody ought to pat me on the back,” he said. “I did something good this year; we’ve been a good team. We really overshadowed just how good we were with how poorly we ran the last 10 weeks.
“Hopefully we’ll have the opportunity in the Chase to prove to everyone and ourselves how good we can be and it starts (at Chicagoland). I’m ready to get my suit on and get in the car and be ready.”
Earnhardt said he has a serious side and it involves being as prepared as he can be come race day.
“It involves you and your team putting in the grind and going over the notes and from the moment you wake up in the morning until the time you go to bed, you’re thinking of how you could be better, all the time,” he said. “Going over notes. Thinking about changes you made. Beating your head against the wall every for second you’re awake until it’s over.”