- Associated Press - Monday, September 12, 2011

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - NASCAR has never hidden its desire to have Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the championship field. As the sport’s most popular driver, his participation in the title chase raises the profile of the 10-race series.

After a two-year absence, Earnhardt finally is back in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. But is he a legitimate title contender? Probably not, based on the last three months of racing, with just one top-10 finish in the last 12 races.

NASCAR will soon find out if Earnhardt’s mere presence is enough to sustain fan interest over the next 10 weeks.

If he’s not running up front and challenging for wins, he’ll stay close to the bottom in the standings, and all those eyeballs NASCAR is hoping for won’t be watching come mid-November.

Earnhardt, by the way, has never said that simply making the Chase is his end game. He’s chasing the Sprint Cup, the ultimate prize, and considers the Chase just a brief break from the constant scrutiny on his failure to contend for a championship.

“Making the Chase is important, but I have made the Chase before. I know what that feels like. My main concern is for us to be more competitive as a team,” Earnhardt said. “It is really frustrating to make the Chase and then not be as competitive as you want to be during those races. That is really all I am thinking about.”

The last few weeks have been jarring for Earnhardt fans, who were ecstatic when his pairing with crew chief Steve Letarte resulted in a fast start to the season. It raised hopes that this might finally be the year Earnhardt claims his first Cup title. Three top-10 finishes in April _ and near-wins at Martinsville and Charlotte _ moved him to third in the standings, where he hovered through 15 races.

Then he overheated on the road course at Sonoma and finished 41st. He’s had just one top-10 finish in the last 12 races, a slide that put his Chase participation in serious jeopardy. Although he went into Saturday night’s race at Richmond ranked ninth in the standings and only needed a finish of 20th or better to make the field, the entire 400 miles were a nail-biting test of patience.

He ran in the 20s most of the race, griped to Letarte about how difficult his car has been to drive over the last 10 races and seemed at times rattled to the point of resignation.

“I can’t think of the big picture because I really can’t see it. Y’all can see it,” Earnhardt sighed.

Letarte, who plays the role of cheerleader and mental motivator to perfection, urged Earnhardt to stay focused when the driver seemed to be on the edge of despair.

In the end, Earnhardt finished 16th and made the Chase for the first time since 2008. Although he three times needed the NASCAR free pass to get back on the lead lap, he insisted he never worried that he’d be shut out of the 12-driver field.

“I felt like if we were a good enough team, we’d get the job done,” he said. “I knew my team could fix the car good enough, and if everything fell the right way for us as far as them cautions and getting them lucky dogs, getting an opportunity to work on the car, we’d be fine.”

For now, sure.

But 16th-place finishes won’t cut it going forward. Starting Sunday at Chicago, all 12 drivers in the Chase must be perfect to have a chance at winning the title. The field is too deep for anyone to be mediocre, and it should only take a race or two for the top teams to move to the front of the standings.

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