NASCAR & Auto Racing

John Clay: Earnhardt Jr. makes surprise visit to Lexington, says he likes his chances in NASCAR's Chase

Dale Earnhardt Jr. checked out his helmet during a NASCAR Sprint Cup practice session at Darlington Raceway last month. He is still alive in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. checked out his helmet during a NASCAR Sprint Cup practice session at Darlington Raceway last month. He is still alive in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. AP

Before Sunday, there was serious doubt as to whether Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was even going to advance to the next stage of NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Now, Junior might be one of the favorites.

"He's got an excellent shot," said owner Rick Hendrick on Tuesday night.

Earnhardt and Hendrick were in Lexington as a surprise to Valvoline employees who are celebrating the 150th anniversary of the company.

The duo appeared at Rupp Arena where they took part in a question-and-answer session moderated by Ray Evernham. The questions came from the audience made up of Valvoline employees.

"They've been a great sponsor of ours," Earnhardt said afterward. "They really help our performance out on the racetrack. We started out at the beginning of the year and just in several months they were able to find some extra horsepower in the composition of the oil changes."

Earnhardt needed every bit of that horsepower last Sunday in the AAA 400 at the Dover International Speedway in Delaware. Earnhardt and Jamie McMurray were vying for the 12th and final transfer spot to advance to the "contender" round.

Faced with a do-or-die situation going into the final laps, Earnhardt needed to pass McMurray to finish in third place and stay alive in the Cup battle. And pass McMurray he did on the final restart with 24 laps remaining.

"That was one of the boldest moves I've seen, probably the boldest move I've seen at Dover since I've been racing," said Hendrick, who has Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon still in the Chase. "When you go to the outside of a guy you're hoping the car will stick. The way he went around him it was like they stopped."

Just 20 laps earlier a caution flag had allowed Earnhardt to pit with a loose wheel. Without the caution, Junior would have had to pit during a green and lost too much ground.

"We had run well all day to be in position and we'll take credit for that," Earnhardt said. "But sometimes it comes down to a little luck."

Earnhardt and McMurray finished with the same number of points through the three races of the first round, but Earnhardt advanced by virtue of his third-place finish at Dover, which was better than any of McMurray's finishes in the first three races.

The next stage consists of races at Charlotte (Oct. 10), Kansas (Oct. 18) and Talladega (Oct. 25), tracks where Earnhardt has had good success. One of his two 2015 victories was at Talladega. That's one of the reasons racing experts say the 40-year-old is ready to make a serious run at the title.

"I feel good about our ability to move forward," Earnhardt said. "There's going to be some tall hurdles to jump. I think we're good enough team to get to Homestead (for the final race on Nov. 22)."

"We just don't need to make a mistake," Hendrick said. "The cars are pretty even, but he's so good at Kansas, Charlotte and at Talladega. If we can make it through this round, at Homestead he's really good there."

Before the serious stuff, however, there was time for some fun Tuesday night.

"It's fun to surprise people and I'm just thankful that NASCAR has a lot of fans," Hendrick said of the Valvoline event. "Junior being the most popular guy, it's always fun to go with him places."

"We got to see the locker room here at the facility," said Earnhardt of the UK basketball locker room at Rupp. "That was pretty impressive."

In fact, Earnhardt has a UK basketball connection. His fiancée, Amy Reimann, is a former UK cheerleader.

"Every time they're playing I'm cheering for them," Earnhardt said of the Cats.

Now, a lot of people are cheering for Earnhardt to win that elusive first Cup title.

"It's going to be tough," he said. "There's a lot of competition and everybody's bringing their 'A' game."

"Hopefully we'll get a little racing luck," Hendrick said. "And we can get (Earnhardt) his first championship or Jeff his fifth."