The Inside Line: Earnhardt Jr. seeks first win of season

( – Dale Earnhardt Jr. was happy with his third-place finish
at Texas last Saturday, but he would have been much happier if he had won the
race to virtually guarantee himself a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

After NASCAR revised the format for last year’s Chase, Earnhardt became the
first driver to punch his ticket into the playoffs when he won the season-
opening Daytona 500. He scored two more victories during the regular season —
both races at Pocono — to secure the third seed in the Chase. He went on to
finish the season eighth in the point standings.

With seven races completed this year, Earnhardt sits seventh in points. He
started the season with back-to-back third-place finishes at Daytona and
Atlanta and then had a fourth-place run at Las Vegas before finishing 43rd in
the Phoenix race due to an accident.

Earnhardt placed 36th at Martinsville the last weekend in March, dealing with
a broken shifter early in the race and then being involved in a wreck just
before the halfway point. After the Sprint Cup Series took its first break of
the season earlier this month, Earnhardt bounced back with his top-five run at

“We’ve had that speed all year and it’s good to get a good finish in the bank
because these last few weeks have been pretty rough,” Earnhardt said after the
Texas race.

Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin
have all won a race this season. Harvick, the current points leader and
defending series champion, has been dominant this season, finishing either
first or second in six of the seven races. He placed eighth at Martinsville.

Harvick and Johnson have two victories each this year, with Harvick winning at
Las Vegas and Phoenix, and Johnson at Atlanta and Texas.

There are 19 races remaining before the regular season concludes.

“I want to win to know I’m in (the Chase),” Earnhardt said. “I don’t want to
wait all the way to Richmond (regular season finale on Sept. 12) or whatever
to count points. Once you get that win, you get to do things with fuel
mileage, you get to be aggressive and try to stretch it if you’re a couple
laps short. We won some races last year doing that.”

Sprint Cup competes at Bristol this weekend — the second short track race on
this year’s schedule. Earnhardt feels really good about his chances of winning

“We go to Bristol next, so I guess that’s a better opportunity for me because
my name is not Jimmie (Johnson) and my name ain’t Kevin (Harvick),” he said.

Earnhardt has one victory in 30 Sprint Cup starts at Bristol, winning the
night race there in 2004. He finished 24th and 39th at that half-mile,
concrete-surfaced track this past year.

For the 2015 season, Earnhardt is paired with crew chief Greg Ives after Steve
Letarte served in the role at Earnhardt’s No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team
from 2011-14. Letarte departed Hendrick at the end of the season and joined
NBC Sports for its coverage of NASCAR later this year.

Ives had worked for JR Motorsports, a team co-owned by Earnhardt, before he
moved over to Hendrick. Last year, Ives guided Chase Elliott to the Xfinity
Series championship in Elliott’s rookie season.

When Earnhardt was recently asked about his relationship with new crew chief
Ives, he responded, “It’s good. He’s not Steve. They don’t have the same
personality, not that one is better than the other.

“Me and Steve became such great friends, so it was like working with your best
friend every day. Me and Greg are working on that relationship. I’ve got a lot
of respect for him. He’s a great family man. He’s real honest, and I trust him
knowing the things he’s done to get where he is. I trust his judgment. I need
that relationship. That’s a relationship I want to have with my crew chief.”

As their relationship continues to grow, Earnhardt and Ives are becoming more
and more optimistic about winning a race soon.