Originally Published: August 19, 2013

Logano Holds Off Harvick At Michigan

Sprint Cup: Should Earnhardt be worried?

By David Newton | ESPN.com

For months, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has appeared to be a lock to make the Chase, so comfortably inside the top 10 who are guaranteed a spot in NASCAR's 10-race playoff that neither he nor his nation of fans needed to worry.

Well, it's time to worry.

NASCAR's most popular driver finished 36th on Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, his second straight run of 30th or worse. While he's at No. 7 in the Sprint Cup standings, he's only 20 points away from 11th place with three races left in the regular season.

Without a win, the No. 88 team's margin for error has been reduced to one more bad finish (wins are the first tiebreaker for the Chase's two wild-card spots).

Is Earnhardt worried? He didn't sound like it on Sunday after a blown tire sent a potential race-winning car to the garage for repairs after leading 20 laps.

"There are guys in worse positions than us," said Earnhardt, who has fallen from fifth to seventh in the standings the past two weeks. "We ain't got to outrun just one guy; there's a lot of guys. And all of them have got to have clean races, just like we do. I think we'll be all right."

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Jared C. Tilton/Getty ImagesDale Earnhardt Jr. on his recent spate of bad luck: "We're a top-5 team. We're consistent. We're more consistent than most. We've just got to shake this luck, whatever is going on."

He's right. There are drivers in worse positions. Joey Logano won on Sunday but is in 13th place, seven points behind Martin Truex Jr. for the second wild-card position. Reigning champ Brad Keselowski is eighth in points without a win, and 2004 champion Kurt Busch is ninth without a win.

But the difference between Keselowski and Earnhardt is down to 12 points, while Busch is only two points further back. Keselowski has three straight finishes of 12th or better, and Busch has three straight top-10s, including a pair of thirds.

Logano is hot, as well. The win gives him four straight finishes of eighth or better.

So expecting them to slip down the stretch might be a stretch, particularly on Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway. Keselowski was third at the half-mile track in the spring race and has won twice there since 2011. Busch was fourth there in the spring and is a five-time Bristol winner.

The good news for Earnhardt is he was sixth at Bristol in March, and the bad finishes at Watkins Glen and Michigan were not due to a lack of bad cars. He was headed for at least a top-15 at Watkins Glen before being caught up in a late-race crash triggered by Matt Kenseth getting into Marcos Ambrose.

Earnhardt likely would have been a factor for the win at Michigan.

And in the two races prior to that, he had finishes of fifth and sixth.

"We're not an 11th-place team," Earnhardt told reporters firmly at MIS. "We're a top-5 team. We're consistent. We're more consistent than most. We've just got to shake this luck, whatever is going on. It's something different every time.

"We've got good speed and we've just got to keep our head up and keep working hard and things will be all right."

Still, the next three weeks will be a nail-biter for everyone from Earnhardt to Ryan Newman (in 15th place with a win). One blown tire, one bad pit stop, one engine failure could be the difference between being a bystander for the Chase and a contender for the championship.

It can be as simple as what happened to Earnhardt on Sunday.

"It was down on the splitter getting into the corner," Earnhardt said of the tire. "I got it slowed down pretty good and then started getting close to the wall and put a little brake in it and it blew the tire out.

"It had a slow leak, and I don't know. ... We have had a lot of problems with this particular tire and it's getting frustrating."

That Earnhardt remains upbeat helps even though he said several times it's "kind of frustrating."

It will be that way for every driver on the bubble, and Earnhardt suddenly finds himself on it after ranking fifth in points with a 62-point lead on the 11th-place driver three weeks ago.

"It's a competitive sport and we've got some good teams behind us," Earnhardt said. "We are not sitting here with everybody in the distance. It's just a little closer than we would like it to be, but it's still 20 points. That is half a race ... so we got three to go; we should be all right."

But he added, "If we keep having bad luck, we can't do nothing about that."

Not with the margin this close.

David Newton | email

ESPN Staff Writer

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