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Earnhardt, who has not won a race since 2008, is already in a hole: Seeded 10th in the field, he trails co-leaders Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick by 12 points. It doesn’t help, either, that this field is stacked.

Carl Edwards has been the strongest driver through a long stretch of the season, and former champion Matt Kenseth has two wins and has been quite consistent. Jeff Gordon, a three-time winner this season, is running far better than he did in his nearly perfect 2007 campaign, and Brad Keselowski was on fire all summer as he stormed into Chase contention.

Don’t forget five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson, who has stepped it up a notch over the last month. Denny Hamlin, who nearly dethroned Johnson last season, has a fresh chance to redeem his disappointing year.

It’s unclear where Earnhardt will land when it all shakes out with this group, which also includes Ryan Newman, and former champions Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart.

Earnhardt knows he must find his early season form, and he’s hopeful Letarte has something up his sleeve for the Chase.

“We had a pretty good run at it going the first 15 races, and for whatever reason we sort of fell off and forgot some things or over engineered something,” he said. “We need to look hard at what we’re doing, what we’ve been doing, sort of a pattern, find something within. But Steve has told me he’s been kind of conservative.

“We’ll just see. I don’t think that any of that stuff is really going to make us faster, but we’ll go in there with a good attitude.”

That might help, but what NASCAR really needs from Earnhardt are strong results. Without him in the mix, even the greatest championship battle in history might not be enough to draw the interest the series craves.

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