HAMPTON, Ga. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. will miss the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the third time in its six years.
But the sport's most popular driver doesn't plan to be a spectator or cheerleader the rest of the season.
"We are mathematically out of the Chase at this point, so we are watching everybody else and seeing how they are going to do," said Earnhardt, who will start 31st in tonight's Pep Boys Auto 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Martin Truex Jr., who will leave Earnhardt Ganassi Racing after the season to join Michael Waltrip Racing, won his first pole of the season at 184.149 mph.
Kasey Kahne qualified second at 183.497 mph, followed by Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and Kurt Busch.
Three might Chase
"I think Hendrick Motorsports has several opportunities to win the championship," Earnhardt said. "We are going to try to win some races and help our teammates the best we can."
So, while Jimmie Johnson seeks his fourth consecutive title, Jeff Gordon looks for his fifth overall and Mark Martin (should he qualify) his first, Earnhardt Jr. and his No. 88 team plan to provide backup.
His teammates agree the best thing he can do to help a Hendrick driver bring home a championship is to be in position to compete for wins.
"What's most important from a teammate, whether they are challenging for a championship or not, is good, valuable information," Gordon said.
"If they can continue to improve their performance and give us really solid information, that's going to help us be more competitive against the other teams out there. That's all we ever ask from any of our teammates."
Although Earnhardt would much rather be in the Chase, his performance of late seems to indicate he and crew chief Lance McGrew are headed in the right direction.
He is coming off consecutive top-10 finishes for the first time this season and has finished 11th or higher in six of the past eight races at Atlanta. Earnhardt was ninth on Aug. 22 at Bristol, Tenn., and third on Aug. 16 at Michigan. His back-to-back top-10 finishes jumped him four spots in the series standings to 21st.
"The best thing [Earnhardt] can do obviously is to go out and win races and get everything under control in that respect and silence all of that side of things," Johnson said. "I think it would be great for his sanity and the team.
"He's close. Just some small adjustments are going to make the difference and he's going to be there. He's been a great teammate. He's been doing everything he can to help provide great information, and his car set-ups and working with all of us."
The ultimate goal, Johnson said, is to have Earnhardt join the other Hendrick drivers in competing for a championship.
"I can't say that I can see him doing much more because he's been a great teammate and engaged and involved and doing everything he can," Johnson said. Tony Eury Jr., Earnhardt's former crew chief who now works with Hendrick's research and development group, said Earnhardt's No. 88 can join in the efforts employed by the part-time Cup team HMS fields with Brad Keselowski.
"Set-ups on cars are constantly evolving, but the guys in the Chase can't usually go out there and try those things when they are trying to win a championship," Eury Jr. said.
"That's why we've got our No. 25 car with Brad. It's like what we did at Michigan. We tried a set-up that those guys needed some information about."
Eury Jr. expects to see Earnhardt use a similar approach while he works to end his 37-race winless streak.
"When that team gets to that point, he can try a different bump-stop, a different spring combination -- things to help him run and compete for wins," Eury said. "He can try those things, and if we get good results from it we can address it with the other cars, too."