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Dale Earnhardt Jr. still chasing a spot among the elite

  • Dale Earnhardt, Jr., answers questions during a press conference at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013. <br/><br/>(TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)

    Dale Earnhardt, Jr., answers questions during a press conference at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013.

    (TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)

  • Concord's Steph Resnick, shown here in a game against Manchester Memorial last year, led Concord in scoring last year and returns to power the Tide's attack. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Concord's Steph Resnick, shown here in a game against Manchester Memorial last year, led Concord in scoring last year and returns to power the Tide's attack.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Concord's team walks off the field after winning their game against Manchester Memorial High School on September 18, 2013 at Rollins Park. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Concord's team walks off the field after winning their game against Manchester Memorial High School on September 18, 2013 at Rollins Park.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Dale Earnhardt, Jr., answers questions during a press conference at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013. <br/><br/>(TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)

    Dale Earnhardt, Jr., answers questions during a press conference at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013.

    (TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)

  • Dale Earnhardt, Jr., answers questions during a press conference at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013. <br/><br/>(TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)
  • Concord's Steph Resnick, shown here in a game against Manchester Memorial last year, led Concord in scoring last year and returns to power the Tide's attack. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Concord's team walks off the field after winning their game against Manchester Memorial High School on September 18, 2013 at Rollins Park. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Dale Earnhardt, Jr., answers questions during a press conference at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013. <br/><br/>(TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)

Dale Earnhardt Jr. stood in the media center at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in August, surrounded by reporters, answering the same questions that have dogged him for the past few years.

Is this the year? Why haven’t you been able to win? What needs to go your way that hasn’t?

“We’ve got a really good package as far as everybody that we’ve got together on the team to be consistent every week,” Earnhardt answered. “But definitely, we want to win more races. That’s been frustrating, that we haven’t won as many as we’d like to.”

In addressing the future, Earnhardt succinctly

summed up his recent past. The consistency’s been there; three straight qualifications for the Chase for the Sprint Cup attests to that. But there hasn’t been that extra gear, that ability to dominate a race or own a track that Jimmie Johnson has shown, or Matt Kenseth has shown, or Kyle Busch has shown.

Weekend after weekend, while the drivers who are now the favorites in the Chase have been in the mix for wins, Earnhardt, who was seventh entering the chase and is 13th now, has settled for top-10s, good afternoons as an also-ran. It’s a formula that gets a driver into the Chase – but won’t get him much further.

“We definitely want to win more races than we’ve been winning, but the consistency is a positive thing that’s been going on for us and something that we’re real proud of,” said Earnhardt, who has five top-fives and 14 top-10s. “(It’s) something I’ve worked on my whole career to put all the pieces of the puzzle together.”

The abundance of decent results, and the absence of excellent ones, would suggest a cautious approach, that Earnhardt sacrifices a chance for a win in exchange for protecting himself from a debilitating wreck or malfunction. He insists, however, that that isn’t the case.

“We run hard every lap,” he said. “If I finish first or I finish 10th, I’ve run my hardest every week. We take plenty of risks. Every time we have a restart, you’re thrown in situations and positions and you take gambles every chance you get. ... Being riskier, I think borderlines on being ignorant and making mistakes and putting yourself in bad positions and putting other people in bad positions, too.”

It’s a style that used to produce results more easily. From 2001-04, he won 13 races and finished in the top five 49 times. He was a career-best third in 2003, and his fifth-place finish the following year, when he won six times, is tied for his second-best performance. That success was followed four years later by a switch to powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports, a move that was supposed to expedite Earnhardt’s progression into a Sprint Cup champion.

Instead, his career went the other way. While teammate Johnson celebrated championships in 2009 and 2010, Earnhardt sat way out of contention at 25th and 21st, respectively. He went winless both years and again in 2011, and though he made the Chase, his four top-fives and 12 top-10s were the lowest among all championship contenders. His consistency’s improved in the two years since, but his potency hasn’t, as the driver who led over 1,000 laps three straight years (from 2002-04) led only 148 this year.

It’s not good enough at this time of year, and Earnhardt knows it.

“I don’t think we’re considered probably one of the favorites by anybody by any means,” he said prior to the start of the Chase. “We haven’t had the performance this year. I think last year, people in the middle of the season might have been putting us in that conversation. This year, we just haven’t had the finishes throughout the season to really be in that conversation.”

Earnhardt paused, and the outlook lightened.

“We might be a bit of a mid-pack or dark horse choice in the Chase if we get that opportunity.”

The Chase always offers a chance for a driver to find his form when it matters most, but that opportunity has produced more questions than encouragement for the sport’s most popular driver. Earnhardt’s engine failed in Chicago last week en route to a 35th-place finish, putting him dead last entering Loudon, 53 points behind Kenseth – and, according to ESPN’s Rusty Wallace, burying him in his pursuit of his first title.

“If you don’t have that points foundation, it is almost impossible to catch back up and run everybody down at the end of the year,” he said. “Junior’s probably out because of that. I’ve seen extreme things happen, and (he) might get (himself) up in the top five. Do I think (he’s) going to rocket back up to first or second? I just don’t think that’s going to happen.”

The odds are against him, but it’s not unheard of. Johnson’s first of five straight titles, in 2006, came after a 39th-place finish in the Chase opener at Loudon, and the Hendrick star was still stuck in eighth after four races. He didn’t finish outside of the top-10 again, however, rattling off four runner-up finishes and a win in the last six races to take the title.

Earnhardt pulling off a similar rally would mean pulling off a Johnson-esque hot streak, something that hasn’t been his forte. But a prerequisite to that success is confidence, and an unwavering belief that, in Earnhardt’s case, year No. 14 will be the one.

“If you’re one of the guys and you get that shot, you just show up every week with the attitude that you’re going to do your best and it’s going to happen,” he said. “You just have to believe it’s going to happen for you.”

(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340 or at abonifant@cmonitor.com, or via Twitter @dbonifant.)

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