While he has yet to officially clinch a position in NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup, Dale Earnhardt Jr. knows something dramatic would have to happen for him not to qualify.
Accordingly, he's approaching this weekend's event at Richmond International Raceway as he would any other race.
"We're not locked in by no means, but we're in a comfortable enough position to be able to pay attention to the race we're running," Earnhardt said Thursday at Richmond. "It's just a normal weekend to me."
Entering the Federated Auto Parts 400, Earnhardt ranks seventh in the standings, 37 points clear of 11th-place Kurt Busch. To clinch a Chase berth, Earnhardt must finish 32nd or better without leading a lap, 33rd if he leads a single lap or 34th if he leads the most laps -- regardless of what anyone else does.
Although this weekend will be less stressful, that hasn't been the case in the weeks leading up to Richmond. After consecutive races at Watkins Glen and Michigan where he finished in the 30s, Earnhardt was just 20 points ahead of the Chase cutoff with three regular season races still remaining.
Any doubt that he would not make the Chase was erased, however, when Earnhardt posted back-to-back top-10s at Bristol and in Atlanta.
"Fortunate enough, we've had enough good runs over the last couple weeks to put ourselves in this situation, not have to be nervous or worried," Earnhardt said. "It wasn't much fun (before Bristol and Atlanta) having to make sure we didn't make any mistakes and give up too many points to the guys behind us."
Because Richmond is a short track where tempers frequently flare and vendettas are settled, Earnhardt's primary goal Saturday is to avoid situations where might be collected in an accident.
"You just have to drive a smart race, use your head, drive people with respect," he said. "You want to get run over, you can make a few wrong turns and tick some people off, get yourself put in the fence real quick.
"There are guys that aren't going to make the Chase, aren't too happy about their situation, going to have some pretty short fuses out there. You don't want to rough up anybody. You want to take your time getting around some of these guys."
Another objective Earnhardt has is to aid his Hendrick Motorsports teammates. While Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne have both locked up a Chase spot, Jeff Gordon is still very much on the bubble, six points out of 10th and without a win.
As an organization, Hendrick has not discussed issuing team orders in order to get Gordon into the playoffs. But if the opportunity arose to help him do so, Earnhardt would not object.
"From my point of view it would be hard for me to understand exactly what I could do to help one of my teammates," Earnhardt said. "The crew chiefs can see the picture a lot clearer than the driver can.
"I want to help my teammates. I want my teammates to be into the Chase. I want Rick to have as much opportunity to have a chance to win a championship as he can as an owner."