Earnhardt still upbeat

His chances are diminishing for the Chase

jutter@charlotteobserver.comAugust 4, 2011 

Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s recent slump hasn't shaken the driver's confidence nor has it disrupted plans for a contract extension with Hendrick Motorsports to be signed within the next 30 days, his team owner Rick Hendrick said Wednesday.

"Through all of the tough situations of late, Dale's never lost any confidence in himself, in Steve (Letarte, Earnhardt's crew chief) or the team. He's very relaxed," Hendrick told the Observer.

"Stevie keeps him up whenever he may even think about getting down. He's just frustrated with the results. He knows how good the team is. He knows how good he is. He has shown it at points of almost every race."

For much of the first part of this season, it appeared Earnhardt was on track to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup after a two-year absence and pull off a victory or two along the way.

Earnhardt finished second at Martinsville, Va., and at Kansas to move as high as third in points in June. The top 10 are guaranteed a spot in the Chase.

However, over the last five races, he's dropped from third to 10th with no finish better than 16th. He sits 19 points ahead of 11th and with no wins this season, he suddenly looks in danger of missing the Chase for a third straight season.

Is Hendrick worried?

"I don't worry. I would be disappointed because we had a plan and we were running well and we had a cushion (in points)," he said.

Hendrick said he and Earnhardt should have an official contract extension completed within 30 days although he believes it is for all intents and purposes already complete.

"It will be a multi-year deal. We haven't been in a hurry because we both have taken it for granted that we're doing it," he said. "It's almost a foregone conclusion.

"We've been busy and there are a lot of contracts with sponsors. A hand shake works with him and he and I have a handshake and that's all he and I really need."

What Hendrick would like to see for Earnhardt - as well as all of his Cup teams - as the start of the Chase draws near, is a better qualifying effort across the board.

"For whatever reason, our cars come on better after the tires get hot and we run some. There are a group of cars every week that are really fast right off the bat and then they go away," Hendrick said. "We haven't hit on a set-up yet that will allow us to do that.

"Once we do that, it will make life easier for all of our guys."

Earnhardt and his No. 88 Chevrolet team find themselves in a difficult position now. The team is high enough in points to make the Chase but with no wins, they're in danger of missing it if it falls any lower.

"The tough finishes and wrecks and things that have happened have put him where we can't afford to gamble. If he was sitting second or third in points, like he was, then we could gamble on gas mileage and try to win a race that way," Hendrick said.

"If we were 15th in points, we might take a shot with taking no tires and gambling to try to win. It's tough right now because it's really hard to pass and fuel mileage has won a bunch of races this year."

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