JOLIET – Dale Earnhardt Jr. hoped to come to Chicagoland Speedway with championship aspirations.
Instead, the North Carolina native, who will retire from full-time racing after this season, was unable to secure a spot in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 16-man playoff at last weekend’s regular-season finale at Richmond.
Sunday’s Tales of the Turtles 400 at Chicagoland is the first of 10 playoff races, but regardless of how Earnhardt finishes, he is ineligible to win the Cup Series championship in his farewell season.
“The pressure of trying to win the championship is not there, but that’s a pressure you kind of want,” Earnhardt said of not being in contention for the championship. “Even though you want it, it’s not there, so there’s a concern there that you could get complacent and just go through these races and, maybe, some of the urgency or importance falls away a little bit because there’s no ultimate carryout like that championship trophy.
“So, I think we’ll just consciously remind each other as a team to keep pushing hard and keep working hard. I’m done at the end of the year, but they go on.”
On Friday, Chicagoland Speedway announced that it will be donating $8,800 to PAWS Chicago, an organization that helps unit animals with loving and caring families.
“I’ve had a very good relationship with this track over the years,” Earnhardt said. “It’s a racetrack that I enjoy. We won here a couple years ago. It’s definitely a track that has a lot of different grooves, which puts it right at the top of list [of favorite tracks] for me. Also, it’s an incredible market for us as a sport. We do really well here.”
It’s been over 12 years since Earnhardt’s lone win at Chicagoland in the Cup Series. The win in 2005 at the
1½-mile tri-oval was the lone highlight in what Earnhardt considered a dreary season.
“We’ve had difficult times as a company before – losing Dad and all that – and everybody stuck together,” Earnhardt said. “We had a great year in 2004, and it looked like we were on the uptick, and a lot happened in that last little bit of ’04 changed a lot of things for the company.
“We struggled that year all across the board. Michael [Waltrip] ran great, but I think as a company, we had took some wrong turns. It certainly derailed my career. It was on a pretty good curve, and it changed that dramatically. So, that win was like the only thing we had to celebrate that year.”
To keep the motivation to run well, Earnhardt, 42, said that he is setting goals throughout the remainder of the season and said Friday that one of his goals is to be in the top 20 in points.
“We have the opportunity to beat a few guys, so it [stinks] that is our goal, but we are going to put little goals out there for ourselves that are personal achievements to push ourselves to keep working,” Earnhardt said. “You take pride in that. We feel like we should be in the playoffs; we are not, so we are going to try to gain as many spots until the end of the year as we can in points. That is a goal.”
The 26-time winner in the Cup Series is currently 22nd in points, 109 points behind Daniel Suarez, who is 20th.
Although the pressure to win has dissipated, Earnhardt is still motivated to end the season on a high note and give his team much-needed confidence for 2018.
“How the team sort of ends the season is a catalyst for how it begins the next one, and so it’s important that we try to be as successful and find and learn and study and improve for the betterment of next season,” he said. “That offseason is a few months, but how you end the season definitely affects how you begin the next one.”