Earnhardt Jr.'s Chase Chances Starting to Unravel

SPARTA, KY - JULY 08: Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Diet Mountain Dew/National Guard Chevrolet, stands in the garage during a rain delay prior to practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway on July 8, 2011 in Sparta, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images for NASCAR)

I originally began writing this post as part of my weekly "Five Things We Learned" set but I quickly realized that there was a lot more than a paragraph to say about Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s chances to make the Chase for the Championship.

In short, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will find himself on the outside looking in when the playoffs begin at Chicagoland Speedway.

Earnhardt finished in 30th at Kentucky, bookending a four-week slide that's seen him fall from third to eight in the championship, 19 points out of tenth. Making matters worse is that Earnhardt is still mired in a 111-race winless streak with only eight races to go until the Chase cutoff. Unless Earnhardt Jr. can win a race over the next seven weeks, recent trends suggest that he will not maintain his top-ten standing.

Summer is not Earnhardt's strongest period with only seven of his 18 career wins coming in the months May through August.

There's little to suggest that this is going to change this summer.

His average finish at tracks over the next eight weeks is 16.7, not nearly enough to make the Chase under any scenario. Watkins Glen (22.9) and Indianapolis (22.2) are looking to be especially dangerous, especially with a points paying system that severely punishes finishes outside of the top-20.

Earnhardt Jr. cannot afford another mulligan.

History suggests that Earnhardt will cave to the pressure of being a contender. He's going to make either a mistake in pit road, flat spot a tire, or place himself in a bad spot just as he's done in 2010, 2009, and every season prior to joining the mega-powered Hendrick stable in 2008. The truth is that Dale Earnhardt Jr. doesn't have the mental makeup or team behind him to make the Chase for the Championship.

Fans are quick to praise new crew chief Steve Letarte for Earnhardt's early turnaround but the future is not as bright as it once appeared.

Don't forget that Jeff Gordon drove the same cars in 2010, a season in which Gordon was one of the most consistent players in the Sprint Cup garage. Despite his model of consistency, Gordon was unable to capitalize at Phoenix, Texas, Las Vegas and Martinsville. His inability to close on wins wore at the chemistry between he and Letarte and Gordon would finish the season ninth in points with zero wins.

This sounds remarkably similar to Earnhardt's 2011 campaign thus far where strong runs and near-wins at Martinsville, Charlotte, and Kansas came up just short. These sorts of near-misses wear on a driver's confidence and Earnhardt was visibly frustrated after cutting a tire with two laps remaining in Saturday's Quaker State 400.

The last month has taught Earnhardt just how quickly things can change in today's Sprint Cup. It took just four weeks for him to fall six spots but prior to the free-fall Earnhardt was sitting third and had loop data numbers consistent with Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards.

The new championship format provides a lot of flexibility, especially if Earnhardt can find a way to win over the next eight events. His best chances will come at Bristol, Atlanta, and Richmond -- the final three races of the regular season.

If the trends of the past month maintain, he may just need that win.

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