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Sprint Cup - With 'Trap' Race Behind, Earnhardt's Chase Chances Brighten

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Watkins Glen, August 16, 2011: For Dale Earnhardt Jr., this past week has been a case of one down, four to go.

Earnhardt, by his own definition a less-than-skilled road racer, “escaped” Watkins Glen International with a 15th-place finish. It not only solidified his hold on a qualifying berth for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup but boosted him a spot in the standings to ninth.

Earnhardt heads to Michigan International Speedway with a 36-point cushion over 11th-place Clint Bowyer. Only the Pure Michigan 400 and events at Bristol Motor Speedway, Atlanta Motor Speedway and Richmond International Raceway remain before the final 10 Chase qualifiers and Wild Cards are determined.

The best news after avoiding a Watkins Glen “trap” is that Earnhardt’s last victory came at Michigan International Speedway in 2008. He has also won at the other three remaining tracks.

By some measures, Earnhardt’s 2011 season has not been spectacular. But call it solid: he has already matched last year’s top-five finishes (three) and has one more top-10 finish (nine) than 2010’s total.

With a 21st-place finish in Michigan’s spring race, Earnhardt definitely has room for improvement in the Irish Hills. Statistically, however, Earnhardt has done well at MIS with six top-10 finishes in his last 10 starts. He also won a NASCAR Nationwide Series race there in 2006.

There’s also the Steve Letarte factor. Letarte, Jeff Gordon’s former crew chief, fielded a top-five finishing car in three of his last four Michigan races with the four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion. Gordon was second in both Michigan races in 2009.