Saturday Nascar Notebook: With a win in hand, Dale Earnhardt Jr. can push the envelope

By Reid Spencer NASCAR Wire Service
Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 National Guard Chevrolet, practices for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series The Profit on CNBC 500 at Phoenix International Raceway on March 1, 2014 in Avondale, Arizona.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 National Guard Chevrolet, practices for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series The Profit on CNBC 500 at Phoenix International Raceway on March 1, 2014 in Avondale, Arizona.
Credit: 295711 Robert Laberge/Getty Images

AVONDALE, Ariz.—Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s victory in last Sunday's Daytona 500 might just be the NASCAR equivalent of a 'Get-out-of-jail-free' card.

With a Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup berth all but a certainty thanks to the win, Earnhardt, Steve Letarte and the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team suddenly are liberated in the approach they can take to the next 25 races on the schedule.

And Earnhardt is riding a wave of confidence swelled mightily during last year's Chase. Just ask teammate Jeff Gordon.

"There's no doubt, this sport is so much about confidence and believing in one another," Gordon said. "We've all said that one race doesn't necessarily guarantee anything, but, boy, with the new points system, it certainly guarantees a lot.

"That allows you to continue to build that confidence and just push the envelope of your setups, your pit strategy, how you're driving ... And with the kind of confidence he has coming from last year, and now off of this race (Daytona 500), you would think that will transfer over to the next several races."

If it does, is a championship possible for the driver of the No. 88 Chevy? Gordon wouldn't rule it out.

"Now we get to the downforce tracks, and if those guys perform well on these next few tracks, watch out. I think anything is possible."

WHERE THERE'S SMOKE...
Tony Stewart must be feeling better—just don't ask him about it.

Stewart at his feistiest greeted reporters Friday at Phoenix International Raceway.

Asked how he was feeling after Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway, the driver who suffers neither fools nor repetitious questions had a curt answer.

"I'll be honest," said the three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, who missed the last 15 races of 2013 after breaking his right leg in a Sprint Car accident on Aug. 5. "I'll be more happy when everybody quits asking me how I feel. I'm not 100 percent. I'm not going to be 100 percent for a while. It was fine (at Daytona).

"There wasn't any drama, same as we said for the (Sprint Unlimited), same as we said for the (Budweiser Duel) qualifying race and same as we said after the (Daytona) 500. I appreciate everybody checking on me, but it's not going to change in a week.

"It wasn't a big drama. Everything is fine. Everything is fine in the car this week so far. Hopefully, we'll be able to talk a year from now about how far we've come."

Welcome back, Smoke.

A REAL KNOCKOUT
When Brad Keselowski says the new knockout qualifying format suits his style, he means it.

After winning the pole for Saturday's Blue Jeans Go Green 200 NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Phoenix International Raceway, Keselowski is 2-for-2 in group time trials that have run to conclusion in the first year of the new format in all three of NASCAR's national series.

On Friday afternoon, the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion won the pole for Sunday's The Profit on CNBC 500 in the first knockout session for the Sprint Cup Series, which used the traditional qualifying format for last Sunday's Daytona 500.

"This qualifying format really does suit my style a lot better," Keselowski said after winning the Sprint Cup pole. "It gives me a chance to learn and apply, which to me was instrumental to our success today and hopefully will be in how we go forward.

"It's interesting how a small format change like this can favor or disfavor teams and individuals, and this is one that we've been able to take like a fish to water. Hopefully, we'll continue to do that."

Keselowski won't have crew chief Paul Wolfe at Phoenix on Sunday, however.

"Gonna miss having my crew chief Paul Wolfe this Sunday," the driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Ford posted on his Twitter account. "Best wishes to him and his wife Aleah on the pending birth of their first child."

Wolfe flew back to North Carolina on Saturday via Keselowski's private jet to be with his wife.

Keselowski posted the 20th-fastest lap in final Cup practice Saturday. Kevin Harvick paced both Saturday practices and posted the fastest lap of the day in the morning session—137.757 mph.

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