BROOKLYN, Mich. (AP) — Just over halfway through the Sprint Cup regular season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. can be about as carefree as he wants on the racetrack.
“We could run terrible,” he said. “We could have accidents every week and still make the Chase.”
That’s certainly an extreme way of putting it, but Earnhardt is one of several drivers who can rest easy, having already won a race to put themselves in almost certain position to make NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup. So those racers can relax — and maybe drive a bit more aggressively for the win, because it probably doesn’t matter if a move backfires.
“Once you have a win and you’re in the Chase you can really kind of let it hang out and have a little more fun,” said Carl Edwards, who won at Charlotte three races ago. “It takes a little bit of the anxiety away and little bit of the pressure, and everybody is just a little bit more loose.”
Nobody has mathematically clinched a spot yet in the Chase — drivers have to be in the top 30 in points to make it. But the 10 drivers with victories have little reason to worry about their postseason chances.
That’s not to say they’ll be mailing in these next few weeks. Earnhardt added a pair of third-place finishes after his victory at Talladega in May. He’s been out of the top 10 the last two races, but that’s a risk he’s willing to accept, especially if it’s a byproduct of trying to finish first.
“Winning races is so important. … Only the winners get the acknowledgement and are relevant, so for our sponsors, partners, for network, for awareness, everything comes down to winning. People don’t remember this great run you had, that you finished fifth,” Earnhardt said. “Since we’ve got the win, we’re locked in. We can calm down and not be nervous and worried about our points in that situation, and we just go race. Second, fifth, it’s really about the same thing.”
It’s a simplistic way of looking at each race, one Earnhardt says he enjoys.
“It’s not like we’re just kicking our feet up,” he said. “You’re really racing and enjoying it in its purest form, like you did when you started.”
Edwards, in his first season after joining Joe Gibbs Racing, can use this relatively calm period in the season to build toward the Chase.
“My teammates are so good,” he said. “We go to these meetings and I feel like I’m in school. I’m learning from these guys. I’m so excited to apply that and have the opportunity to race in a low-stress environment.”
Earnhardt won at Michigan in 2008 and 2012, snapping long losing streaks both times. After this weekend’s race, the Sprint Cup schedule has a break that will allow him to head to Germany for about a week to research some family history. Earnhardt has German ancestors who were there in the early 1700s.
The auto industry is big in Germany, of course, but Earnhardt says this is a vacation — not a work-related tour.
“I just want to be anonymous,” Earnhardt said. “I just kind of want to go over and disappear for a while.”
He sounds a bit like a baseball player about to enjoy the All-Star break. The difference is that in baseball, you can’t wrap up a playoff berth in July.
“The pressure to be in the Chase, the pressure from everybody watching and the networks and the broadcasts and the partnerships, all that stuff sort of makes racing a lot harder to enjoy, because there’s just so much pressure on success,” Earnhardt said. “It’s not like that when you first start out. You kind of miss that a little bit, so when you get that Chase position kind of locked in, you can go back to just enjoying racing for what it was.”
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