JOLIETT, ILL. - Dale Earnhardt Jr. will start at the back of the grid in the No. 88
Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet on Sunday in the GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway in his first real run at a NASCAR Sprint Cup championship in almost a decade.
Earnhardt had a lap of 182.070 m.p.h. in qualifying Saturday at the 1.5-mile oval — fast enough to put him on the second row behind pole sitter Jimmie Johnson, who led all qualifiers with a lap of 182.865 in the No. 48 Hendrick Chevrolet — but an engine change will force him to the back.
Crew chief Steve Letarte said he wasn’t concerned about starting so far back.
Aric Almirola will start second on a lap of 182.636 m.p.h. in the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford with Matt Kenseth third in the No. 17 Roush Fenway Ford at 182.334 m.p.h.
For Earnhardt, the last time he was this competitive this late in the season was back in 2004 when he was still driving the No. 8
Chevrolet for his step-mother at Dale Earnhardt Inc. and he went into the final 10 races with four wins, just 10 points behind then points leader Jeff Gordon.
Although he would win two more races — at Talladega and Phoenix — in that first Chase for the Championship, back-to-back wrecks at Martinsville and Atlanta put him out of contention.
In between then and now it has been pretty much all disappointment for NASCAR’s most popular driver, including missing the Chase completely in three of the past five seasons.
This season, however, although he has only one win — back in June at Michigan — feels different for Earnhardt and his legions of faithful followers.
A big part of the reason is that he has clicked with Letarte, who has preached consistency all season long as the way to win a championship.
And consistency has been Earnhardt’s hallmark so far in 2012 — the No. 88 team has a remarkable 15 top 10 finishes in the first 26 races leading up to Sunday’s Chase start.
“We’ve been real consistent, more consistent than any other team,” he said. “We put together points week in and week out that kept us in the top three, top two throughout the season.
“I know winning races is what won the championship (for Tony Stewart) last year and I think that’s definitely going to set some guys apart, but you’ve got to pair it with consistency.
“You can’t win five races and run in the back five races and win the championship. You’ve got to pair it with consistency. We’ve got that part down I think.”
Earnhardt, notoriously hard on himself at the best of times, also seems more relaxed than he has ever been at this time of the season.
In fact, he says he can’t wait for the Chase to start.
“It all starts (Sunday), just getting in the car and going to work,” he said. “I feel pretty good. I’m just ready to work on the car and do what we do.”
Rather than worry about that he might not ever get a first NASCAR Sprint Cup championship that is iconic father won a record seven times, Earnhardt Jr. said this year he is concentrating on taking each of the 10 Chase races on its own merit.
“I try not to look at the Chase as one entity,” he said. “I’m just kind of looking at each race and each track as a step-by-step process.
“You can only really focus on this next practice and what we need to do in that practice. Then, in between practices we’ll try to talk about improving the car and go to the next ... trying to make that as productive as possible, that’s what I woke up thinking about (yesterday).”
Earnhardt said when he looks back at his run at the Cup in 2004, he comes to the conclusion he never really appreciated the opportunity he had and how close he was to winning it all.
He said that is not the case this season.
“I think this is the best chance I have ever had, even more than 2004,” he said. “Looking back on that year I didn’t realize how close we could have come or how good that chance was.
“I think we are a more complete team now where we run good at all the race tracks.”
As for confidence — once his Achilles heel — Earnhardt is exuding it this year.
“We can win this championship,” he said.
He may not have made the Chase this season but Carl Edwards hasn’t faded from public view. The driver of the No. 99 RFR Ford has signed on to do a post-race analysis after each Chase event for sports broadcasting giant ESPN ... Richard Petty Motorsports is expected to stay in the Ford fold next season after failing to get a better deal with either Chevrolet or Toyota for its No. 9 and No. 43 teams. ... Montreal’s Bruno Spengler took his third DTM pole position of the season Saturday on a lap of 1:20.916 in a Schnitzer BMW at Oschersleben in Germany. Toronto’s Robert Wickens qualified 13th in a Mucke Mercedes with a lap of 1:21.176.
Denny Hamlin, the No. 1 seed in the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship, will start eighth Sunday in the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
Hamlin, with four wins so far this season, has a three-point cushion over five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who will start on the pole in the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
Hamlin said that going out late in qualifying hurt his effort.
“Going out late, it’s tough to really get a good lap,” he said. “I left a lot on the race track.”
Defending Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart, who is tied with Johnson three back of Hamlin, had a poor qualifying effort in the No. 14 Stewart Haas Chevrolet, only managing a 29th place start.
As for other chase drivers, Dale Earnhardt Jr. qualified fourth, with Kasey Kahne in sixth, Clint Bowyer ninth, Brad Keselowski 13th, Martin Truex Jr. 18th, Jeff Gordon 19th, Greg Biffle 22nd and Kevin Harvick 35th.
Gordon was particularly disappointed, especially after his strong performance to get in the Chase last week at Richmond.
“Not near as good as good as I was hoping for,” he said. “The car was a little bit loose. I think a lot of people are struggling with that.”