Feud Of The Week: Chicagoland - Junior Nation Vs. The Chase
For Dale Earnhardt Jr., the perennial most popular driver in NASCAR, Sunday night's GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway was a brutal, swift kick to his championship chances for 2013. And it was a gut-wrenching night for his millions of fans, too.
Earnhardt took the lead on Lap 221 of the 267-lap race, giving Junior Nation a brief moment of hope that this might finally be the year their hero wins his long-sought first NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.
Alas, the dream was a fleeting one.
On Lap 224, the engine in Earnhardt's No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet grenaded in spectacular fashion, sending huge plumes of smoke out the exhaust pipes. Instead of winning, or at least getting a good points nights, Earnhardt finished 35th, one of seven drivers who succumbed to engine failure on the long, chilly night.
With just one race down in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Earnhardt is 13th in the standings. Worse yet, he's 53 points behind leader Matt Kenseth, which means he's already more than one full race behind in points.
You can't win the Chase in the first race, but it's possible to lose it, especially if the eventual champion strings together nine or ten top-10 finishes, which Earnhardt knows all too well.
"It's going to be really hard to win a championship this far behind," Earnhardt said after suffering his third engine failure of the season. "We have some pretty tough competition in the Chase. The average finish is going to be inside the top 10 to win the championship. So you can do the numbers, you can do the math."
And judging by the response on Twitter, his fans were none too happy, either.