Anything less than a win, and the two Hendrick Motorsports teammates have virtually no shot at being among the eight drivers who advance out of the Contender Round and into the Eliminator Round. From that round, four drivers will ultimately decide the 2014 championship in a winner-take-all race at Homestead-Miami Speedway next month.
NASCAR executives in Daytona Beach and Charlotte, N.C., must be cringing at the thought of Earnhardt Jr. — the sport’s 11-time most popular driver — not being championship-eligible over the season’s final four races.
After all, no one in NASCAR puts more fannies in seats and more families around the TV set on Sunday afternoons than the affable driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
A Junior failure to reach the next round would be even more tragic for NASCAR for the simple fact that the third-generation driver has enjoyed easily his best season in a decade and arguably his best season since joining NASCAR’s top series in 2000.
This is the same Dale Jr. who opened the 2014 campaign with an electrifying win at the Daytona 500, and then followed up by sweeping the two races at Pocono Raceway — a track where he had never won before this season.
This is also the same Dale Jr. who throughout the entire 26-race regular season never fell lower than sixth in the standings while netting 16 top-10 finishes, including 11 top fives.
Despite cooling off a bit in recent weeks, Earnhardt Jr. has maintained pretty much from the start of the year that he believed his No. 88 bunch led by veteran crew chief Steve Letarte was more than capable of winning the title.
Yet halfway through the Chase, Earnhardt Jr. finds himself likely needing to score big at Talladega — the most unpredictable of all tracks — just to be among the final eight.
Now, granted, it’s not over for Earnhardt Jr. until it’s really over. He’s a five-time Talladega winner, so he clearly knows how to get the job done at the 2.66-mile Alabama track.
Earnhardt Jr. hasn’t been to Victory Lane here since 2004, however, and has never won at Talladega as a Hendrick driver.
So while an Earnhardt triumph on Sunday certainly isn’t outside the realm of possibility, recent history — along with Talladega’s zany nature — suggests the odds are against it.
If Earnhardt Jr. doesn’t advance, it will mean he can finish no better than fifth in the standings in a year when many around the NASCAR world — not just Junior Nation — harbored hopes of much more.
It will also be a bitter pill to swallow for Letarte, who after four seasons atop Earnhardt Jr.’s pit box is leaving Hendrick Motorsports for a job as a NASCAR television analyst in 2015.
While most believe that Earnhardt Jr. will be strong next season with up-and-coming crew chief Greg Ives, it’s reasonable to assume it may take some time for the two to establish the chemistry that Junior and Letarte have.
And that could mean at least two more years before Earnhardt, who just turned 40, makes another serious run at his first Sprint Cup title.
Of course, while fans and NASCAR’s top brass have every reason to hope Earnhardt Jr. somehow manages to make the next Chase round, no one except perhaps his own team, family members and fans will shed any tears if Johnson fails to reach the Eliminator Eight.
After all, it is Johnson — a winner of six of the past eight championships, including five in a row — whose dominance many believe is responsible for the empty seats that are so visible these days at so many tracks.
In all reality, there is little not to like about Johnson — a quintessential family man who rarely ruffles the feathers of his competitors, and who has represented the sport with tremendous class and dignity.
Fans are simply tired of seeing Johnson win championships, however, and NASCAR is acutely aware of this.
Perhaps it’s ironic, then, that Earnhardt Jr. and Johnson are tied for last place among the 12 remaining Chase drivers.
If Earnhardt Jr. wins Sunday at Talladega — a track, by the way, where he’s adored like no other — all will be well with the NASCAR world.
If his six-time champion teammate, a two-time ‘Dega winner, goes to Victory Lane and moves on to the next round of the Chase, a collective groan will go out from NASCAR’s corporate offices.
Even if no one ever hears it.