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.
‘‘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.’’
‘‘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.