Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a must-win situation

RICHMOND, VA - SEPTEMBER 08: Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 AXALTA Chevrolet, signs autographs during qualifying for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway on September 8, 2017 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
Dale Earnhardt Jr. signs autographs during Friday’s qualifying for the NASCAR Monster Energy race at Richmond International Raceway.

RICHMOND, Va. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. says he hasn’t imagined a fairy-tale finish to his last NASCAR regular season. Retiring at the end of the season, the sport’s most popular driver is one of several racers whose only hope for getting into the 10-race playoffs that begin next weekend is by winning the Federated Auto Parts 400 on Saturday night at Richmond Raceway.

But even Earnhardt seems to realize the likelihood of his 27th career victory — and fourth on the 0.75-mile oval — isn’t high. It has been 62 races since his last victory, at Phoenix in November 2015, and he said Friday after practice that he has what feels like ‘‘a sixth- to 12th-place car.’’ He added: ‘‘If we could come out of here with a win, it would be quite the surprise, not only for all you guys but us included.’’

Earnhardt’s laid-back attitude contrasts with those of other drivers in his same shoes.


Joey Logano, for example, won the Cup race here in April, but then became the first driver to have a race ‘‘encumbered,’’ NASCAR parlance for being allowed to keep the victory, but without the playoff points or the automatic berth in the postseason because of an infraction discovered after the race. He has struggled ever since.

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‘‘We are in a do-or-die situation,’’ Logano said. ‘‘Any time you can win a race in that situation, there is no better feeling than that. Also returning here after our win in the spring and obviously the drama that followed, it would be very nice to be able to get back in victory lane and prove a point. I don’t see any reason why we can't.’’

Logano, who was second to Jimmie Johnson in the final standings last season, also likes the way his team is approaching the challenge.

‘‘This is a time that shows your true character,’’ he said. ‘‘You can be either down on yourself and be beat before you show up to the race track or show up here ready to go and have the right attitude and confidence that we are going to win.”

Other drivers needing to win to qualify for the playoffs include Clint Bowyer, Erik Jones, and Daniel Suarez. The three non-winners ahead of them, and thus most vulnerable to being knocked out, are rookie Chase Elliott, Jamie McMuray, and 2003 series champion Matt Kenseth, who ran a fast lap at 122.421 miles per hour Friday to win the pole.


‘‘Really I'm still thinking about trying to get that win,’’ Kenseth said when asked how much attention he or his team will pay to where Elliott and McMurray are running in the race. ‘‘Yeah, I mean, we want to get in, but if you win, you’re in for sure, so I don’t think you’re going to pay much attention. Maybe at the end of the race you pay a little bit of attention who is leading, where those two guys are, but I think we just run our own race.’’

Jones expects to do the same, though he’s confident there will be anxiety before the green flag.

‘‘I've honestly felt just really locked in all week. I've felt like I've just been really excited to get here and get on track and get qualifying done and get the race going,’’ he said. ‘‘... I'm sure once the race rolls around here tomorrow night the nerves will be high and we'll be itching to go and get things out of the way.’’

Jones’s team has been among the most consistent in recent weeks, finishing in the top five in the last three races and in the top 10 in each of the last five.

He'd had just one top-five in the first 22 races of the year.


‘‘You know, we just need to keep running the way we've been running, and that win is going to come,’’ he said.

.   .   .

Denny Hamlin will likely be without his crew chief for the first race of NASCAR’s playoffs, and the Joe Gibbs Racing driver says he has no problem with the governing body making penalties harsh when cars fail post-race inspection.

Mike Wheeler was suspended for two races and fined $50,000 this week after Hamlin finished a weekend sweep of the Xfinity and Cup series races at Darlington Raceway last weekend. Hamlin’s car was found to be in violation of rear suspension rules. He also was docked five playoff points.

Wheeler will miss Saturday night’s race at Richmond Raceway and the first playoff race in Chicago.

Hamlin said the penalty ‘‘took something that was super positive and turned it into a negative pretty quick,’’ but he has no problem with the decision.

‘‘Yeah, I think it fits,’’ he said. ‘‘I think we can talk about taking wins away in the future. I think it’s definitely a possibility. As long as it’s the same for everyone, I think that’s key. Make sure that when someone else is in there with the same violation, it gets the same penalty and treatment even if it’s in the playoffs.’’