Dale Earnhardt Jr. stands next to his car Sunday at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn. (Steve Perez / Detroit News)
Richmond, Va. — Two weeks ago, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was sailing along looking like a lock to make it into NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship, standing fifth in points in one of the most consistent seasons of his career.
Then he finished 30th at Watkins Glen, and 36th at Michigan.
Suddenly the most popular driver in the Sprint Cup Series is feeling some heat.
“The confidence is there, but the stress is there, too,” he said during a pause from testing Wednesday at Richmond International Raceway, where all four Hendrick Motorsports teams are spending two days.
Earnhardt has fallen to seventh in the standings, just 20 points ahead of teammate Kasey Kahne, who is 11th with three races remaining before the field is set in the regular season finale at Richmond.
The top 10 in points automatically qualify, along with two wild card selections that place a premium on victories. Kahne has two, leading everyone outside the top six, and Earnhardt doesn’t have any.
“You definitely don’t like to be in this situation,” Earnhardt said. “I don’t think anybody wants to be on the bubble or even worried or concerned about points leading up to Richmond, so we hope to have a couple of good weeks to put ourselves in a pretty comfortable situation before we even come here.”
Earnhardt has three career victories on the 0.75-mile D-shaped oval, which drivers say combines short-track bumping and banging and a superspeedway feel, but his last victory here came in May 2006.
“It’s a tough track,” he said. “Just looking at everybody as a whole, nobody really comes here and is just great every time. It’s not a track that you see one team consistently dominate. We’ve had good cars here and brought back the same setup and it just didn’t work. You’re never really sure when you show up.”
The series moves to Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend, and also stops in Atlanta before returning to Richmond with what looks to be a battle that could go down to the final laps under the lights at RIR.
Matt Kenseth, who is sixth in points, and No. 12 Martin Truex Jr. are separated by just 35 points.
“The intensity definitely ramps up a little bit, especially with all these short tracks right here butting up against the Chase with Bristol and Richmond,” Earnhardt said. “It definitely puts some tension in the air and makes everybody a little bit more nervous because anything can happen.”