Shockingly and swiftly, Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s once-promising season is heading south.
Though he sat comfortably inside the Chase just a few weeks ago – he was within 10 points of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series lead after Pocono – Earnhardt Jr. has had four consecutive sub-par finishes to drop him to eighth in the standings.
NASCAR's most popular driver is now just 21 points ahead of 11th-place Tony Stewart – and Earnhardt Jr. doesn't have a win that would help him to a wild card berth should he fall out of the top 10.
Saturday night's inaugural Cup race at Kentucky Speedway only added to the problem. Earnhardt Jr. was already headed for what he termed a "disappointing" finish before a blown tire late in the race made things even worse.
He settled for a 30th-place finish, and was very subdued in a brief interview afterward. There was little opportunity to pass, he said, and NASCAR "has that kind of racing a lot."
"It was disappointing from the start," he said. "We were OK. ... I'd move around and try to find speed, and it'd just go slower. So I had this one line that I'd just run over and over. And I didn't catch anybody and, if I was lucky, nobody caught me. That was pretty much how it went."
And Earnhardt Jr. didn't have a good car anyway, he said. The team missed the setup for some reason, and was never particularly competitive.
"When we showed up, we were real happy – and we just dialed ourselves out from there," he said quietly. "We didn't ride the bumps good, the car didn't cut the corner good. ... We would have finished well if we would have got some track position, but damn, man, we just couldn't ever get it."
To add insult to injury, Earnhardt Jr. blew a tire immediately following what was supposed to be his final pit stop. Pulling off the track to get enough fuel to make it to the end, Earnhardt Jr. slid his left-front tire while coming onto pit road.
When he drove back onto the track, the tire blew out.
"It was all my fault," he said.
Earnhardt Jr. had just two finishes outside the top 15 in the first 14 races; since then, he's had four straight results outside the top 15.