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Junior boosts Chase hopes

HAMPTON, Ga. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. got a lap down Tuesday and was never much of a factor at the rain-delayed race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Still, he firmed up his hopes of making it back to the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

Junior struggled to a 19th-place showing with an ill-handling car that was never capable of running up front, barely good enough to preserve his hold on ninth place in the season standings.

“It was not a good day,” Earnhardt said. “We didn’t have a good car. We worked on it a little bit and had a couple of decent runs where we were competitive. But I just fought the car all day long and just couldn’t make anything happen.”

He’s now only two points ahead of Tony Stewart, who finished third. But more important, Earnhardt still has a solid 25-point edge on 11th-place Brad Keselowski.

Since the top 10 makes it into the Chase on points, Earnhardt merely has to make sure he doesn’t cede his advantage on Keselowski in Saturday’s race at Richmond, which will set the field for the 10-race playoff that follows.

“We lost a little bit of ground and it’s a little bit tighter going into Richmond, but we still feel pretty good,” Earnhardt said.

NASCAR’s most popular driver still hasn’t won since 2008, a streak of 118 races. But making the Chase would be an improvement on the last two seasons, when Earnhardt failed to qualify for the playoff and finished 25th and 21st in the final standings.