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Denny Hamlin may be the new championship favorite, following NASCAR's unexpected rules change. But it is a poignant Dale Earnhardt Jr. who just stole the show

Denny Hamlin may be the new championship favorite, following NASCAR's unexpected rules change. But it is a poignant Dale Earnhardt Jr. who just stole the show

Junior: Give the man credit for working in the glare of the spotlight and under extreme pressure (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   JOLIET, Ill.
   Forget all the championship hype for a moment, and consider this:
    Dale Earnhardt Jr., 37, finally back in the NASCAR title hunt, in a solid relationship with girlfriend Amy, though reluctant to commit to marriage...and perhaps a bit afraid to become a father.
   Junior's relationship with his own father was tough, and with his stepmother Teresa even tougher.
   So now, more than 10 years after Senior's death at Daytona, Junior is not only weighing out how to contend for the title that his legendary father won a record seven times, not only weighing out maybe marriage, not only weighing out potential fatherhood, but doing all this in the hard glare of the very public spotlight.
   Dale Earnhardt Jr., a shy man, just delivered this:



Denny Hamlin (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Now the weekend's basic story line is this:

   Toyota's Denny Hamlin continues to make the case as new favorite in the NASCAR championship chase, opening here this weekend, by showing power and strength in the opening two rounds of practice Friday for Sunday's Chicago 400, the first of 10 playoff races.
    But another guy who figures he too has something to prove over the next 2-1/2 months, Greg Biffle, is also making his case.
    Biffle, who won Track and Busch (Nationwide) titles for Ford's Jack Roush before moving up to Cup, should be very strong at this type track.
   However...."I am not as happy as I would be typically at a place like this," Biffle concedes. "The track is a little bit slick, and we have been having a little trouble getting hold of the track."
   After a surprisingly cool Thursday, cloudy and in the 60s, things warmed up here to the high 70s Friday, and that good weather is expected to hold through the weekend.
    "I think everyone is struggling a little bit for grip," Biffle says.
    More worrisome for Biffle, and for Hamlin too, is the engine. Carl Edwards, Biffle's teammate blew up at Atlanta two weeks ago, all but ending his chase hopes, after having the strongest and most consistent car on the tour in 2011.    
    "It tests everyone's engines on these 1-1/2-mile tracks," Biffle says. "It is the biggest 'duty cycle' we have.
     "We will wait and see who survives."


Greg Biffle (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    That worry, Hamlin indicated, could put him in defensive mode here. Hamlin and his Toyota teammates have had more than their share of engine problems this season.
    Qualifying for the 400 is set for Saturday....in what many in the sport see as another marketing mistake here, giving up a Friday-Saturday promotional punch for a Saturday afternoon lost-in-the-ozone 'who cares now' qualifying session. Martin Truex Jr. looks to have a very good shot at the pole, with Toyota teams showing qualifying speed.
    A big wild card in the chase now is Toyota's Kyle Busch, who failed to make the chase. Busch should be able to win this race, and may well do it. But is he now still a teammate with Hamlin, cognizant of the championship chase, or just trying to make a statement himself. It may be up to team owner Joe Gibbs to keep things under control...and Gibbs has shown little flair for that during his 20 years in the sport.

    Jimmie Johnson, going for his sixth championship over seven years this fall, is the Las Vegas pick to win the title.
    However Vegas' odds makers might not be considering the latest NASCAR rules change that just took away that significant handling edge Johnson and his Rick Hendrick teammates have held most of the summer. NASCAR, after telling rivals in early August it had no plans to change the rules until the end of the season, in response to questions about the Johnson-Hendrick rear-end 'trick,' suddenly decided to reverse course last week and has now abruptly banned that device.
    Kevin Harvick, also in the playoffs, is strongly critical of NASCAR's handling of the Johnson-Hendrick trick, complaining that the sanctioning body allowed Johnson and teammates to use the now banned device for nearly four months, maybe even longer, and then -- just as rivals had started spending a lot of research money to find similar tricks of their own -- suddenly made it all illegal.
    Not only did Johnson and the Hendrick men, who at one point won eight of 11 tour events, get to use the device while others struggled to uncover the trick, rivals have now spent considerable development dollars trying to catch up...money now essentially wasted.
    Harvick charged that showed the sanctioning body was not attuned to the realities of this sport.


 Darian Grubb: can he become the first crew chief in decades to win back to back championships with different drivers? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
   And elsewhere on the news front, several reports are that Tony Stewart, who just lost Office Depot as main sponsor, is about to announce a new major sponsorship with Bass Pro Shops, which currently sponsors Jamie McMurray. Stewart, though, declined to comment on the situation.
   Biffle chaffs at being considered an underdog in the playoffs, though he concedes he and Martin Truex Jr. and Dale Earnhardt Jr. might be seen that way by some.    
   "But then again we have been at the top of the points the whole time," Biffle says. "Maybe people just don't expect us to continue to stay there for another 10 weeks."
   Earnhardt himself has been pretty laid back much of the season, though he has been remarkably consistent. While he insists he's not interested in getting married any time soon, despite speculation about that, he pauses when asked if his new, more mellow lifestyle away from the track might be helping him on the track. "Well, I ran pretty well in 2004, and I was anything but stable off the race track."
   Earnhardt laughed.

   The chase tends to be markedly different in tone from the regular season, surprising as that might seem. Tony Stewart's charge last fall, which Earnhardt calls "fascinating," is a good example.
   However Stewart's charge was improbable and certainly unexpected, and not likely to be repeated. Seldom can a team and driver turn everything around in just three weeks, as Stewart did last fall: he was at rock bottom at Bristol in late August, qualifying dead last, while teammate Ryan Newman took the pole; but Stewart started his amazing turnaround the very next week at Atlanta, and two weeks after that he won this Chicago 400 to launch the charge.


  Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally got another win. Now can he win the championship? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Yes, all that....and yet it was the increasingly poignant Dale Earnhardt Jr. story that is pushing to centerstage, with all the pressures that means for this man.
   Can Earnhardt win the championship?
    Not many really think that he can, in part because he's gone so long between victories, four years at one point.
    This season, though, "We've been real consistent... more consistent than any other team," Earnhardt says. "We put together points week in and week out that kept us in the top three or top two throughout the season.
    "Biffle, Matt (Kenseth) and Jimmie, all four of us are really putting together the best weeks, when you look at them in lumps. We just are more consistent.
     "I know winning races is what won the championship last year, and I think that's definitely going to set some guys apart (in this chase too). But you've got to pair it with consistency.
    "You can't win five races and run in the back five races and win the championship.
    "You've got to pair it with consistency. We've got that part down.
    "There's really nobody that stands out, and that's also an advantage too.
     "So it's there for the taking.
     "There is no dominant figure that stands out.  That really builds our confidence that it's there for the taking, if we can put it together: consistent weeks, week-in and week-out....and win a couple of races, that we could be the champion."



  Tony Stewart: Gillette time? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
     Earnhardt, of course, is being heavily promoted by NASCAR in this chase.
     He just did the CBS feature.
     And he was pretty forthcoming, as Earnhardt can wont to be.
     "I got a lot of positive reaction. I'm glad I did it. But I probably wouldn't have done it on my own. It's probably nothing I would have volunteered to do.
    "I thought it was a good challenge, and a little bit outside the typical things we do.
    "It was outside the norm; I like to try to do those things.
    "When we had the opportunity to do the Rolling Stone magazine years ago -- even though I knew it was going to be in front of a lot of people who didn't know who I was, and that's very uncomfortable for me, because I don't venture into those areas -- I just knew it was something that I need to challenge myself to do.
    "I thought this was the same kind of thing.
     "It was not easy to do... and I really don't like talking about myself.
    "But I felt I could make my mother happy.
     "I thought she really enjoyed it.
     "I'm glad I did it.
     "When you say the things you say, you don't know how they are going to get received.
     "I looked at some of the other ones they did, and they are incredible. Some of them were inspiring as hell.
     "I guess I hoped to be able to accomplish that.
      "If I did it or not, I don't know. But I was hoping to put myself in the category with the people who had done it before me."


 Wild card? Brad Keselowski (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


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