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By George Dizz | Orlando Sentinel
Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn’t dawdle when it came time to punch his ticket to the Chase.
Daytona 500? Got it.
But what’s up with his Hendrick Dream Team teammates? Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne have yet to win this season. There’s no need to get worked up just yet because there are 16 more races until the playoff field of 16 drivers is set after the late-summer race in Richmond.
But you could look at this deal from the other side, too: Under the new format, drivers with victories are virtually assured a spot in the Chase. Denny Hamlin’s victory at Talladega pushed that number to eight.
Points are still vital. But victories are more crucial.
Will Gordon (first in points) and Johnson (seventh) be able to slide in assuming there are multiple winners (but not more than 14 champs total) who will join Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick? And most importantly, does Kahne get the victory he needs to lock up a Chase spot because 20th in points isn’t going to cut it?
“Honestly, the way I see it is we’re locked in the Chase right now,” Johnson said last week at Talladega. “If it were to end where we are in points, we’re in the Chase. And I’ve been trying to explain that to many people through interviews and other things, and, sure, we want to win.
“We feel like we could have won a few times. But as of right now, we’re locked into the Chase. So I don’t know what the big concern and worry is.”
Sprint Cup defending champion Johnson finished 23rd at Talladega after getting loose with 14 laps remaining and spinning out. Gordon had it worse, finishing 39th after getting caught up in the nonsense caused by Brad Keselowski, who collected a number of cars racing aggressively when he was six laps down.
My guess is that Gordon and Johnson get into the Chase without a problem. Gordon is having one of his best seasons and has just missed victories in several races. Johnson is Johnson, meaning that he and crew chief Chad Knaus will figure out a way to squeeze out a victory before Richmond.
Kahne is another story. Although he finished eighth at Talladega, he has four finishes outside the top 20. This from a guy who won two races last year.
“I was little bit frustrated and I just kind of got over it,” Kahne told The Sporting News last weekend. “Everything is there. You’ve just got to do things right and figure that out working with the guys we have ... I know we’re not far off. I know when we do it, we’re going to be right there.”
JUNIOR LAUGHS OFF WEDDING REPORT
Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. won’t be inviting all of his closest friends for a wedding at Daytona International Speedway.
“No, of course not,” he answered, responding to a report in the National Enquirer. “I would not force everybody to go down to Daytona for my wedding. I probably would just have it right there in the backyard, but whatever is easiest. That was funny. I read that and it was a roller-coaster of an article. Pretty good.”
Speaking to reporters at Talladega this past week, Junior also laughed off the details — that he would be cutting a $2 million check to pay for the wedding. He is known as a fairly frugal guy.
“I definitely would have a hard time writing that check,” he said, laughing.
Earnhardt has been in a steady relationship with Amy Reimann for several years but says the couple does not have any wedding plans.
“So we just skipped the engagement, I guess, went right to the wedding,” he said.
The biggest subplots in Talladega involved three drivers: Danica Patrick, Brad Keselowski and Earnhardt.
Q: Was Patrick at fault for getting tangled up with Keselowski early in the race?
A: No. It seemed obvious that Keselowski was cutting it way too close so early in the race. His crew chief, Paul Wolfe, said as much over the radio:
“We weren’t clear enough to make that. I’ll just call it at that. We weren’t clear enough to make that move.”
Do the math: It was the 14th lap of a race that goes 188.
“I’m not out here to make enemies, especially on speedways,” Danica said, apologetically.
Others, meanwhile, seem to be intent on just that.
WHICH LEADS US TO ...
Q: Was Keselowski driving recklessly when he was the instigator in an incident that took out a dozen drivers with 50 laps remaining?
A: Yes. Keselowski hasn’t always been embraced by a segment of the drivers, who dismiss him as a one-time champion who let the power get to his head. Keselowski did himself no favors with this boneheaded move, driving way too aggressively when he was six laps down. It was a long shot, at best, as to whether he ever would have gotten back on the lead lap.
Q: Was Earnhardt driving like, well, a wuss at Talladega?
A: Yep, but that’s what you get with the new Chase format. Earnhardt has a spot in the Chase and saw no reason to mix it up with the frontrunners late in the race.
He tried to do the NASCAR equivalent of the “rope-a-dope” hoping that there would be enough carnage in the front to allow him to make a run for the lead. There was carnage, but no way that Earnhardt was going to close the gap from that far away.
He got a lot of grief on Twitter, understandably, from fans who expected more of him.
He addressed the issue on “Dirty Mo Radio” Tuesday: “I know a lot of people are disappointed. I’m disappointed that they’re disappointed. I feel like I should have put on a better effort just for the people who come out there and watch us race and, obviously, my crew. I feel like I let a lot of people down, and I just have got to live with that.”