CONCORD, N.C.— When is a 39th-place finish at Kansas Speedway like a victory in the Daytona 500?
Answer: When it takes the pressure off Dale Earnhardt Jr.
No, that’s not a joke. Though a blown tire and a hard shot into the Turn 4 wall at Kansas made staying in the Chase an uphill battle for the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet, Earnhardt comes to Saturday night’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway with a clearly defined set of circumstances and, consequently, a lower degree of stress.
At this point, the surest way for Earnhardt to survive elimination from the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup is to win one of the next two races.
“I feel less pressure now, I think, than I did before the race at Kansas,” Earnhardt said on Thursday before opening practice at Charlotte. “Even, I think, if we had run in the top five last week… I think today still, under the circumstances now, I still feel less pressure for some reason.
“It’s weird. I just think that we have a shot, and I feel good about it. I think our team is good. I think we’re good enough. I think we should go out there and win. I believe we will.”
After winning the season-opening Daytona 500 in February, Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte operated with an unprecedented sense of freedom, knowing they were all but assured of a place in the Chase.
But when the Chase started, the pressure returned.
“When we’re in this situation where nothing matters is when we’re doing that (getting out front) the best,” Earnhardt said. “When we won the Daytona 500, we could be so risky and aggressive on our calls, and it paid off all year long to do that. When this Chase started we reverted back toward being reserved and calculative on our choices and it netted us average results.
“We’re back in a situation (where) we have our backs against the wall, but we’re in a situation where we can be aggressive again, as hard and crazy as we want to be on pit calls and fuel mileage and all those things. That’s where Steve is at his best. I’ve got a lot of confidence that, if the car is competitive and we do the right thing as far as getting the setup in there, we can be around at the end of this thing with a shot.”