TWO RACES into NASCAR's Chase for the Championship isn't the time, in Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s opinion, to start taking chances. Entering the third Chase race - Sunday at Delaware's Dover International Speedway - Earnhardt is seventh in the standings, 26 behind leader Jimmie Johnson.
"I don't think you can take any more chances than we're taking and get away with it on the track or off the track," Earnhardt said on a Tuesday conference call. "I got asked this same question about 15 races into the season: 'Were we going to take any chances?' We were viewed, I think, as a team that was safe and drove conservative, made conservative calls.
"What that did for us was really keep us in the top two or three in points throughout the year. Being smart, being conservative was putting points on the board, which wins championships.
"Once we got locked into the Chase, or felt like we were locked into the Chase, about five races before Richmond, we started taking chances. We started finishing 14th, 15th, 20th, 10th.
"Now, two races into the Chase, people look at the last eight or 10 races we ran and say 'You haven't been that consistent. What are you going to do to get more consistent?' So I think we have to be smart and conservative and use good judgment, trying to get the best finish we can get."
While Earnhardt knows climbing past the six Chasers ahead of him will be difficult, he remains optimistic.
"We're not discouraged, yet we know that the hill got a lot steeper over the last couple weeks," he said. "We're trying to catch some teams that are, frankly, some of the strongest teams in the sport.
"I feel like we're still in the hunt. There's a lot of racing left, a lot of adversity these guys have got to go through. Hopefully, we can maximize these eight remaining races, capitalize on some unfortunate things happening to some other teams [and] put ourselves back in the hunt."
Earnhardt's only win at Dover occurred Sept. 23, 2001, the first Cup series race after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
"Dover's a tough track, a track that I don't have the greatest track record on over the last several races, although we did finish in the top five earlier this year. I've got good confidence going in."
(Earnhardt isn't the only Chaser who has trouble figuring out Dover's 1-mile concrete oval: In five Cup starts Brad Keselowski has no top-10 finishes at the "Monster Mile.")
One way Earnhardt takes his mind off the Chase stress is following the Washington Redskins, his favorite NFL team. Earnhardt was as appalled as many NFL fans were at the final-play call by replacement officials Monday night that gave Seattle a win over Green Bay. Late Wednesday, the NFL and officials reached agreement on a new contract, several media outlets reported.
"I just thought it was consistent with what we've seen throughout the year in how the replacement refs have had some problems and some challenges," Earnhardt said of the call Monday night. "They faced a lot of criticism [and] get a lot of attention. I know they're probably doing as good a job as they can do, they're trying as hard as they can to keep the game going, maintain integrity of the game.
"[But] it's not quite working . . . This season has a little asterisk next to it. It's kind of stained in a way that's irreparable."
Dover Johnson's fave
Jimmie Johnson likely has more confidence about racing at Dover than any other Chaser. Johnson's victory in the spring race at the track gives him seven, the most of any driver. Johnson led 289 of the 400 laps.
"Dover is my favorite racetrack," the five-time Cup champion said before finishing second Sunday at New Hampshire. "I feel as focused and on top of my game as I ever have. I feel the team does as well."
Johnson leads Brad Keselowski by one point and Denny Hamlin by seven. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is trying to benefit from having Johnson as a teammate.
"We work side-by-side with those guys; we're in the same shop," Earnhardt said. "If I want to know what's under his car, what he's going to take to the racetrack, I can climb under it and look [and] compare my setup with his.
"I can't ask for the book to be any more open as it is for me as far as sharing information goes. If I have a question about what I'm doing with my car, what Chad [Knaus, Johnson's crew chief] might be doing with his, I can have that conversation with Chad. I can have that same conversation with Jimmie and his car, the changes they made, how he feels about those."
Earnhardt hopes information from Johnson and Knaus rubs off soon on him and his No. 88 Chevrolet team.
Contact Bill Fleischman at email@example.com.