Dale Earnhardt Jr. talks with Alan Cavanna after his JR Motorsports driver Chase Elliott clinched the 2014 NASCAR Nationwide Series Championship at Phoenix International Raceway.
With six titles in 11 NASCAR national series seasons, Ives could bridge gap
Junior: 'We're gonna win this race' RELATED: 40 pictures of Dale Jr. on his 40th birthday CONCORD, N.C. -- Feeling good on his 40th birthday, Dale Earnhardt Jr . called his shot in a televised interview after Friday's first practice at Charlotte Motor Speedway . "We're gonna win this race. I've got a really good feeling about it," Earnhardt Jr. said. Earnhardt Jr. was 11th in the practice session at 188.633 mph and will line up ninth in Saturday night's Bank of America 500 (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC). Despite being winless at Charlotte in 29 points starts in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Earnhardt Jr. has been optimistic about his chances to win the race throughout the week. "I'm really excited, actually," Earnhardt Jr. told the media on Thursday. "I was thrilled with how we ran last weekend. Super-fast car, this place is a bit similar. "We obviously know what the situation is with the points and how important it is for us to come in here and win the race. I have been winless at Charlotte in a points-paying race since I started my career, so it's bound to happen sooner or later. I always win at the weirdest times, in the oddest circumstances. So I feel like everything is lining up and feel real good about this weekend." On the season, Earnhardt Jr. has three wins, 11 top-fives and 17 top-10s. He finished 19th here in the spring in the Coca-Cola 600 and has not recorded a top-five finish at the track since 2008. Earnhardt Jr. led 45 laps at Kansas and was running the best he had in the Chase before a cut tire derailed his day and led to a 39th-place finish. With two races remaining in the Contender Round, Earnhardt Jr. is 11th in the standings and 25 points back of the final transfer spot to the Eliminator Round. A Chase driver must be in the top eight in points or have a win to advance to that round. MORE: READ: Latest Chase news PLAY: Monitor your Chase Grid Game picks WATCH: Latest NASCAR video FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView FULL CHASE COVERAGE • Chase hub page • Chase Grid games • #MyChaseNation
Dale Jr. led 31 laps, but ultimately came up short at Talladega RELATED: Follow your picks in the Perfect Chase Grid Challenge for chance at $100,000 prize TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr .'s title hopes came to a disappointing end Sunday on the backstretch of Talladega Superspeedway . Caught up in a multi-car accident during the first of two green-white-checkered attempts, the Hendrick Motorsports driver wound up 31st in the GEICO 500 . A long shot became no shot. The opportunity to advance to the Eliminator Round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup went out the window when contact from Greg Biffle sent Earnhardt's car spinning into the wall. Earnhardt joined teammates Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne , along with Joe Gibbs Racing driver Kyle Busch , as those eliminated from Chase title contention. "I don't know if I came down on him or what," Earnhardt said of the contact with the Roush Fenway Racing driver. "I thought I was holding my line, but we were all kind of tight back there.” Earnhardt , Johnson and Brad Keselowski , bringing up the rear of the Chase points heading into the race, needed a win to advance to the next round. Keselowski accomplished the feat, on one of the most treacherous tracks on the schedule. Earnhardt's No. 88 Chevrolet was out front twice for 31 laps, and when he wasn't leading he was often dicing up front among those who were. But getting shuffled back in the field during the final stage of the race left him in a precarious position. "We worked real hard all day long trying to run up front," Earnhardt said. "I knew we needed to be up front all day long. We got shuffled to the back. I made a move trying to get up front and it didn't work out. So, we lost a lot of track position and never got it back. "You need to be up front. You need to be in the top four the last few restarts. Those are the guys that have a shot at it. You know you're not going to pass 10 or 12 cars there in six or seven laps. We tried. It just didn't work out." In a race that saw 38 lead changes among 19 drivers, Earnhardt broke out on top on Lap 75 and stayed on the point for 29 laps. He lost the lead during a round of pit stops, then led briefly for two more laps shortly afterward. He was able to stay around the top 10 for much of the second half of the race, until only some 30 or so laps remained. Even then, given the unpredictable nature of racing on the 2.66-mile track, hope remained. "We worked hard to try to get back into the top five or so, and it just didn't work out," he said. "The car did get loose on one run. We made a good adjustment and it was driving good at the end." Crew chief Steve Letarte said it was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. "We just never could get a foothold; never could mount a charge back to the front," he said. "That's just how it is. Sometimes you get cycled out at the wrong time and that was definitely not the right time to get cycled out." While the car certainly seemed capable of winning, Letarte said the nature of racing here tempers expectations. "I'm not going to say it doesn't matter," he said. "I don't want to discount the hard work our company puts in the engines and these (crew) guys put into the car, but … a great car gives you very little guarantee." A winner of three races prior to the start of the Chase, Earnhardt came to Talladega on the heels of disappointing finishes at Kansas and Charlotte that put his team in a must-win scenario. That he was unable to advance was disappointing, but not crushing. "There have probably been worse things," he said. "I'm not retiring or anything, so we'll try next year. "We've had a good season and have a lot to be looking forward to. We're definitely not going to get too torn up about (it); we didn't run well." MORE: READ: Latest Chase news PLAY: Monitor your Chase Grid Game picks WATCH: Latest NASCAR video FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView FULL CHASE COVERAGE • Chase hub page • Chase Grid games • #MyChaseNation
No. 88 team's win comes 10 years after fatal plane crash RELATED: Full race results " Follow your picks in the Chase Battle Grid Presented by Toyota MORE: Junior meets with another Junior MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- History exists in every turn, in every crevice of Martinsville Speedway . From the elegant grandfather clocks given as race trophies and the antiquated look and feel of the 0.526-mile track, the oldest on the circuit, to the historic black-and-white photos that populate the media center, there is always a constant reminder of the past here in the southern Virginia foothills. Dale Earnhardt Jr ., a lover of NASCAR history, made some of his own with Sunday's victory. The man who attended his first race at the track in the 1980s, who grew up playing with toy Matchbox race cars in the front hall of his childhood home, listening to a race on the radio as one of the clocks his father won chimed every hour, now has a timepiece of his own after Sunday's thrilling victory. "You know, I love the history of the sport and just can't get enough of it," said Earnhardt Jr., whose mood vacillated from euphoric to contemplative throughout a 30-minute press conference after Sunday's win. "I just know this place has a special meaning and a special place in the series and the sport. Dad won several races here, brought home several clocks. I always wanted one." "This is so special. I try not to get too caught up in the emotion of it because it's a team deal, but this is very personal and very special to me to be able to win here." He did so by charging through the field after starting 23rd, leading 79 laps and holding off Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon over the frenetic final four laps in a race that had big wrecks and bigger swings. That it was Junior and Gordon finishing 1-2 made the day more fitting for Hendrick Motorsports. Yes, Martinsville is steeped in history. Not all of it is worth celebrating. It was 10 years ago when a Hendrick Motorsports plane crashed into the side of Bull Mountain en route to Martinsville, killing all 10 people aboard. Jimmie Johnson didn't go to Victory Lane that day after his win, and team owner Rick Hendrick's presence at this track is no longer guaranteed. Sometimes attending is too painful for Hendrick, who lost his son, brother and two nieces in the tragedy. The team owner was at this one, though, his mere presence a symbol of the same strength he showed in the days and years following that incident. Like so many in the stands, he nervously watched the dramatic final stages unfold as he wondered if either of his two drivers would win -- or if they'd wreck each other trying. "We miss those folks, family and friends, and they meant so much to the organization," he said as the race wound down. "Every year we think about it, but this year's (different) … 10 years." Then he was there in Victory Lane, the man who has built a four-car operation that is the envy of many, wrapping up the 11-time Most Popular Driver Award winner in a massive embrace. There they stood as confetti poured down around them, two men who have both endured unfathomable tragedy yet manage to still exude genuine gracefulness all these years later. "I could feel how important it was to (Hendrick) and his embrace, when he would hug me," Earnhardt said. "You just know, there's a hug and then there's a genuine hug. His was the real deal. "This is the 10th anniversary. It's more difficult. The 10th anniversary sort of has you reflecting and remembering. … Losing my dad was difficult. I can't imagine that loss that he went through, his family went through, the whole organization. I think I've paralleled my loss and his loss until I started working with him, then I started understanding it's quite a bit larger void that it created." Sunday's unforgettable victory was Earnhardt's fourth of 2014, his highest total in a decade. He's won at Daytona and Martinsville in the same year, and swept the Pocono races. His No. 88 Chevrolet constantly runs toward the front more than it ever has in his career. In his final year with crew chief Steve Letarte, the National Guard team has reached that rare stage where it is fast at every track on the schedule. Opening the season with a Daytona 500 win set a standard the group has consistently matched, and for a while it looked like this team was destined to win the 2014 title until a rough three-race stretch ousted them from the postseason. "I don't believe in fairytales," Earnhardt Jr. said of no longer being in control of his title aspirations. "It's only destiny in hindsight, you know? This wasn't our year. It's only magical after the fact, when you see it happen." Letarte agreed, saying the team had "no excuses" for why it's out of the championship running. That reality didn't keep smiles off either of their faces, though. Letarte may have been as excited as Earnhardt , simply because of how frequently he's heard the clock talk over years -- and how winning at Martinsville was something that Earnhardt needed to check off his career resume. Sure, it didn't come in a championship season, but Earnhardt will never again have a "0" next to the win column at this venue. His place in the Martinsville history book is secured, the man who loves NASCAR history helping to ensure his name will be etched among other legends 50 years from now. There's a different kind of history that comes with this win, too. Personal history. "Hopefully when I'm at his house having a cold one, we'll listen to the thing chime 10 years from now and smile," Letarte said. Now that sounds like a fairytale ending. MORE: READ: Latest Chase news PLAY: Monitor your Chase Grid Game picks WATCH: Latest NASCAR video FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView FULL CHASE COVERAGE • Chase hub page • Chase Grid games • #MyChaseNation
No. 88 team struggles after leading laps early RELATED: Track your picks in the Perfect Chase Grid Challenge and Chase Battle Grid Presented by Toyota CONCORD, N.C. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr . didn't win Saturday night's Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway , thus guaranteeing himself a spot in the next round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup . He didn't finish well enough to climb out of a hole he landed in after finishing 39th at Kansas Speedway a week earlier. Instead, the Hendrick Motorsports driver found himself trying to battle back from a lost lap caused by a broken shifter, the result of a vibration, barely 140 laps into the 334-lap race. In the end, it was a lost cause. The shifter was eventually repaired but the window of opportunity the 40-year-old needed had already closed. Although he made it back onto the lead lap briefly near the end, a final necessary pit stop dropped him one back. He finished 20th in a race won by fellow Chase driver Kevin Harvick . Earnhardt Jr. will head to Talladega next weekend needing a win or a miracle to remain alive in this year’s title hunt, 26 points behind teammate Kasey Kahne who resides in the eighth, and final, transfer spot. "The vibration broke the shifter in half and it just wasn’t a good night," Earnhardt Jr. said afterward. "The car just wasn’t handling well and the vibration was really giving us a lot of problems." Running ninth at Lap 120, Earnhardt Jr. informed his team of the shifter problem less than 20 laps later, just about the time the field was coming to pit road following the third caution of the race. After multiple pit stops, Earnhardt eventually returned to the lineup 23rd but quickly told crew chief Steve Letarte that the quick fix "didn't work." A cycle of green flag stops cost him a lap to the leader just shy of the 200-lap mark -- because he had only third and fourth gear, his crew had to push his car out of its pit stall to get him back under way. "This isn't what we need to do," he admitted after failing to end in Victory Lane in his 30th opportunity on the 1.5-mile track. Now, it's win Talladega or lose a shot at the championship. "Go out there and win it," he said of next weekend’s Geico 500 at the 2.66-mile superspeedway. "We can do it; we have on there a lot of times. "I know what we need to do. We will just have to build a fast car and hope that we don’t have any gremlins and try to go out there and win it." Letarte, who will depart at season’s end to move into the broadcast booth with NBC Sports, said the team's situation was simple. "Listen, you can’t break parts if you want to win races," he said. "We've just got to figure out why the part broke." The issue was similar to one suffered by teammate Jimmie Johnson earlier this season. "And we made changes to the parts so we wouldn’t have it happen again," said Letarte. But the shifter wasn't the cause of the team's trouble, he said. It was simply fallout from the "phantom" vibration that the team was unable to correct. "We didn't really have it bad in practice but we picked it up today," he said. "Vibrations hurt horsepower, hurt handling, hurt parts. That's probably the root cause and the shifter's probably just the result." While they were able to eventually repair the shifter, the lost lap proved more difficult to overcome. "He started shotgun on the field and drove back to the 31 (Ryan Newman) who I think was running like 11th," Letarte said. "I think you have a nice smooth race and you keep your track position, give yourself an opportunity and we could probably run in the top five with no problem. But you've got to give yourself an opportunity; you've got to stay up there. You can't give up laps." Letarte said nothing has changed in spite of his driver's finishing position at Charlotte. The team will start all over again next week with the same goal in mind. "I don't think a good run here was going to make a difference. You had to win. We had to win here and we didn’t; we have to win at Talladega," he said. "Everybody sounds disappointed that the points system creates that but I would argue that it gives you the opportunity to move forward with a win. Last year, our blown tire at Kansas would have eliminated us (from title contention) as well. "At least we have the chance. You go to Talladega and win and you'll be tied for the points lead leaving Talladega." MORE: READ: Latest Chase news PLAY: Monitor your Chase Grid Game picks WATCH: Latest NASCAR video FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView FULL CHASE COVERAGE • Chase hub page • Chase Grid games • #MyChaseNation
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is caught in a major wreck in the first Green, White, Checkered attempt at Talladega.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon, and Ryan Newman talk about their finish at Talladega.
Driver uses Twitter to help recover from his early Chase exit RELATED: Follow your picks in the Chase Battle Grid Presented by Toyota MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Twitter wasn't even a twinkle in Dale Earnhardt Jr .'s eye before the season started, but since joining the social media outlet in Victory Lane after his Daytona 500 win in February, it's become an indispensible hand on the pulse of his nation of fans. After his title hopes for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoffs ended last week at Talladega, Earnhardt told NASCAR.com that the pulse is as strong as ever and it's helping him focus on closing out 2014 with a flourish. "My fans have never really lashed out or shown displeasure at me. They've always been supportive even when they should've been lashing out at me and hard on me, but they've always had my back," Earnhardt said Friday from Martinsville Speedway . "That definitely makes all this a lot easier, knowing that you've got a lot of people still believing in you, happy with what we did this year and can think positively like that, because that's how you've got to be. I spent a lot of years just taking a bad run and letting it fester in the back of your mind for days and days, and it leads on into the next weekend. "I'll say this: Being on Twitter is a lot of things, but I get a real good understanding of where the fan base is through that interaction," said the Hendrick Motorsports driver. "One thing that surprised me about it is it helps me, the support that I get through that single application single-handedly helps me rebound emotionally, and that's so important to be able to put something behind you and move on to the next goal or next target. I was never good at really getting through something like that emotionally and getting onto the next thing and being focused, sharp and ready to go. "If I'm out there racing, the fan reaction is the end result. It's the win or the loss." Earnhardt's year of promise met its match in the new-look Chase's Contender Round, where his three races were fraught with pitfalls -- a tire-related crash at Kansas, a broken shifter and deficit at Charlotte and a late-race wreck at Talladega. In seemingly a blink, the three-win season was without its ultimate crowning goal. Still, Earnhardt was matter-of-fact in addressing his Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 crew on the cool-down lap at Talladega, saying he had four trophies left to attain down the season's home stretch. Combined with the fan support, the new objective has helped to soothe any heartache and stoke hopes of carrying momentum into 2015. "I had heard all season long that they believed that this was the year, this was it, we're going to be in it all the way to the end, and to have fallen so short of our goal, I anticipated everyone to be very disappointed," said Earnhardt , who gave his fans a midweek pep talk in his Dirty Mo Radio podcast this week. "Obviously there was some disappointment, but we've got some things to look forward to, still some racing left that they can cheer for and enjoy. We have some changes getting made in the offseason that they can get excited about and anticipate." Being relegated to the outside of the Chase picture, Earnhardt now has a new perspective on which drivers might make up the final four for the Sprint Cup Championship on Nov. 16 at Homestead-Miami Speedway . His rooting interests stay close to home, as he has thrown his support behind Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon 's quest for a fifth title in NASCAR's top series. Still, he's not ruling out any underdog candidates, which could prompt more interest in what's been a compelling revamped Chase format thus far. "I think there's a couple of guys that will sneak in. I think there will be a couple of usual suspects that you would expect," Earnhardt said. "I believe the Penske cars will be there at Homestead. I hope that Jeff's there; I want Jeff to win the championship for Hendrick. I want to win all the races but definitely want to do all we can to help Jeff, but I also believe that someone will sneak in there and that will be a positive for the sport because this Chase provides that ability. "Among a lot of things, it's working as designed to bring a lot of attention and awareness to each of these races. It's really brought a lot of storylines and great publicity, but also, when it comes down to who those four are, it'll say a lot about how important this Chase has been and will become throughout the next several years." MORE: READ: Latest Chase news PLAY: Monitor your Chase Grid Game picks WATCH: Latest NASCAR video FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView FULL CHASE COVERAGE • Chase hub page • Chase Grid games • #MyChaseNation
Driver of the No. 88 in a win-or-go-home situation in Contender Round finale RELATED: Follow your picks in the Perfect Chase Grid Challenge for chance at $100,000 prize As the Sprint Cup Series rolls into Talladega Superspeedway for the GEICO 500 (Sunday at 2 p.m. ET, ESPN), several drivers are desperate to make a big move and keep themselves in the postseason. One of those drivers is Dale Earnhardt Jr . Earnhardt Jr. comes into Talladega 12th in the points standings and so far on the outside looking in at the Eliminator Round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. He is 26 points behind Kasey Kahne , who holds the final transfer spot to the next round. So the surest -- and in all likelihood only -- way for Junior to advance is with a win. With plenty on the line and only two spots locked up for the Eliminator Round, the expectation is for a wilder race than normal. "I think Talladega is going to be pretty crazy -- I expect guys are going to have to take some pretty big chances to continue to move on into the later rounds of the Chase, and Talladega is a track where we are all pretty much on top of each other in the draft and guys are going to have every opportunity to make things pretty interesting, so I expect that race to get pretty wild," Earnhardt Jr. said when asked about the Contender Round finale. The recently turned 40-year-old has had his share of success at Talladega with five wins in 29 starts at the 2.66-mile track, but he has not won there since 2004. He has led laps, though, in all but three of his starts at the Alabama track. And while he won't need to lead plenty, he will need to be leading at the end in order to keep his championship hopes alive. So what is his strategy? "I think you got to get in there and just run as hard as you can and try and take every opportunity you can to just keep moving forward and take every position you can take," Earnhardt Jr. said. "We've thought at times that a more relaxed and patient attitude will be more beneficial, but I haven't really ever had that pay off for me and good results with that race track. The races where I've ran my best is where I've been more proactive and aggressive, trying to move forward and trying to make passes and trying to keep track position, so I think that's what we'll try to do this time." Steve Letarte, Earnhardt Jr.'s crew chief for the past four seasons, echoed those thoughts in an interview earlier this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio's "The Morning Drive." "We're going to be that team that's aggressive. Aggressive with our fuel strategy, aggressive with our pit strategy. Try to keep the lead, try to assume track position does matter at Talladega. Try to be in the lead when it matters and then Dale's gonna have to do his thing and then we're going to have to get some help from the guys behind us. That's the one unfortunate part about speedway racing, is that no matter how good you are, you are going to need some commitment from the people pushing you. That's the scenario we didn't want to have happen, but you know, we're here." Letarte is leaving the No. 88 team after this season to move to the broadcast booth with NBC Sports' coverage of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in 2015. He says the team knows what has to be done. "I don't think there's anymore pressure than there was going to Charlotte," Letarte said. Dale Jr. called his own shot of winning the Bank of America 500, but a broken shifter derailed his day and led to a 20th-place finish. Letarte added that the No. 88 team's position in the standings lends itself to a go for broke mentality. "The guys that are in, that could fall out, they're going to have a more stressful day, in my opinion, at Talladega than the guys that are way out hoping to get in, because we've kind of made our bed." Should the No. 88 team not advance, Letarte says not to expect them to lay down for the final four races. "We're not giving up by any means," Letarte said. "Even if we fall out at Talladega, we are still not giving up. We race to win and I know the championship was the big buzz all year long and its great, but there's a lot of years you don't race for a championship. There's a lot of guys that miss the Chase. You look at the 42 car, he's not laying down. He's racing to win and I think you're going to see it out of the four teams that don't make it out of Talladega." MORE: READ: Latest Chase news PLAY: Monitor your Chase Grid Game picks WATCH: Latest NASCAR video FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView FULL CHASE COVERAGE • Chase hub page • Chase Grid games • #MyChaseNation