Junior likes chances as Chase for Sprint Cup begins


Junior likes chances as Chase for Sprint Cup begins

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is enjoying the good life right now. But in 10 weeks, he could be enjoying the great life. All he has to do is win this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup.
NASCAR's marquee event of the season, the 10-race Chase kicks off Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway in suburban Joliet. Complete with a playoff-like atmosphere, the Chase is NASCAR's time to shine amid the NFL, college football and the upcoming Major League playoffs.
But if Earnhardt is able to build upon the outstanding consistency he's shown all season, carry it through the Chase and emerge with his first career Sprint Cup championship, he and NASCAR will definitely make some serious noise on the sports landscape.
NASCAR chairman Brian France has repeatedly said over the last few years that the sanctioning body needs Earnhardt to not only win races, but also to win championships if the sport is to return to its glory days -- particularly those days that centered around Earnhardt's late father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., in the 1980s and 1990s.
Ever since his father was tragically killed in a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500, the younger Earnhardt has picked up the mantle and not only tried to carry on his father's legacy, but also to establish his own name and legacy.
While he's done well in the latter, having been voted by fans as NASCAR's most popular driver the last nine years, there's no question Junior's overall on-track record has paled in comparison to his late father's.
Dale Sr. won 76 races in his career; Junior has won just 19.
Dale Sr. shares the record for most Cup championships in a career (seven) with the legendary Richard Petty; Junior is still searching for his first Cup title.
But there is a strong chance that could change this year. Earnhardt comes into the Chase tied for seventh in seeding, but is only miniscule nine points behind top seed Denny Hamlin.
The key is for the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet to get off to a good start if he hopes to continue the momentum he's had during the season -- he's statistically been the most consistent driver thus far in 2012 in the Cup series -- and carry it on through the Chase.
That's easier said than done, though, as Earnhardt quickly points out.
"I think this is the most competitive Chase we've had," Earnhardt said. "There's no clear favorite. There's no one guy that stands out above the rest, and if you had to pick or guess odds, everybody's odds are pretty even."
Earnhardt has a strong affinity for racing at Chicagoland Speedway, not to mention visiting the Windy City (he joked about not being recognized when he and friends visited The Bean in downtown Chicago on Tuesday). In 11 starts on the 1.5-mile race track, Earnhardt has one win (2005), three top-5 and four top-10 finishes, including finishing third in last year's race.
Earnhardt has been a relative stranger to victory lane over the last few years. In fact, he finally snapped a 142-race winless streak that dated back to 2008 earlier this year at Michigan. He'd like nothing more than to earn win No. 2 at Chicago.
"The first one is the best opportunity to win," Earnhardt said of Chicagoland. "I think we can be strong everywhere."
The Junior of 2012 is significantly different than the Junior we've watched in previous years, he says emphatically. Granted, there have been highs and lows and over the last several years, there have arguably been more lows than highs. But ever since he was paired with crew chief Steve Letarte at the beginning of last season, Earnhardt agrees he has become more mature, more patient and appreciates the gains he's made -- particularly this season -- all the more.
"Absolutely, for me, it does," he said. "I don't know if that's the way for everybody. I think back how we won those Nationwide Series championships (in 1998 and 1999). I didn't know how to win a championship, I didn't know how to race for a championship.
"We just went out and ran as hard as we could and got a big enough lead to lock it up early. So, I thought at that time that I knew how to win championships, but I really didn't. It's taken a lot of mistakes to get smarter. I feel that if I do what I need to do on the race track myself and not mistakes, then I put myself in a good position to win this one."
If winning the Chase was predicated upon confidence, Earnhardt would likely emerge the champion at the end of the 10-race playoff. Or so he hopes.
We'll find out -- or at least get an early glimpse if that's indeed the case -- starting Sunday.
"I feel we've got a good shot at it," Earnhardt said. "We've been consistent all year long and I think our chances are as good as they have ever been for me. I had a pretty good shot at it back in '04 (he finished fifth), but I think this year is a better opportunity.
"We've got the team, and we're poised to make a run at it. You've got to put the guys that have won the championship at the top of the list as the favorites but we are in the conversation, and we're going to work hard to still be in that conversation when it comes time for the season finale at Homestead Fla.."

Gustav Forsling out, Corey Crawford starting vs. Devils

Gustav Forsling out, Corey Crawford starting vs. Devils

Gustav Forsling will not travel and Corey Crawford will start when the Blackhawks face the New Jersey Devils on Friday night.

Forsling, who is day-to-day with an upper-body injury sustained against the Calgary Flames on Monday night, did not practice on Thursday. Coach Joel Quenneville is still hopeful that the defenseman can play Sunday against the Los Angeles Kings.

The Blackhawks were switching lines again, putting Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane together on the top line. Marian Hossa took Kane’s place on the second line with Artemi Panarin and Artem Anisimov and Tyler Motte moved to the third line.

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“Yeah, I guess change can be good in this sense. We can probably produce a little bit more offense and have the puck a little bit more throughout the game,” Kane said. “I’ve played with Jonny a bunch before. Obviously, not as much lately. But I’m looking forward to it. It’ll be a fun way to play hockey. Obviously he’s one of the best players in the game, and probably in my mind the easiest player to play with. It’ll be fun to get back out there with him and try to create something, try to produce and have some fun with it.”

Meanwhile, forward Andrew Desjardins (lower body) continues to improve. Quenneville said Desjardins could be skating in the next day or so.

Dwyane Wade feels 'very good' about Cubs-Indians World Series bet with LeBron James

Dwyane Wade feels 'very good' about Cubs-Indians World Series bet with LeBron James

Dwyane Wade was already down one game in the World Series when he finalized a bet with Cleveland native LeBron James.

But after Jake Arrieta, Kyle Schwarber and the Cubs took care of business in Game 2, Wade's optimism of winning his bet with his best friend has improved.

"I feel very good about being 1-1," Wade said of the tied series between the Cubs and Indians. It was tough because we made the bet and they were up 1-0 right away, but we’re in a good place right now."

After the Cubs clinched their first World Series berth in 71 years, Wade tweeted at James about placing a bet on their respective hometowns. James and his Cavaliers teammates have been regulars at Indians home games throughout the postseason, including last night's Game 2.

Wade took to the internet to finalize the bet on Wednesday, saying that the loser of the bet would have to arrive to the winner's hometown wearing the winning team's full jersey.

Wade said Thursday during Bulls' shootaround at the Advocate Center that the loser of the bet is on his own to go the distance and dress head-to-toe in garb.

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"It’s your job to get your own (uniform), but you’ve got to come in looking like one of the players for sure," Wade said. "I’m talking about glove, bat, whatever you decide. Come in with everything. So it’s gonna be cool."

James and the Cavaliers travel to Chicago for the first time on Dec. 2, while Wade and the Bulls will be in Cleveland on Jan. 4.

It's not the only bet the former teammates have with each other. And it's more so a friendly back-and-forth as the two future Hall of Famers root on their respective hometowns.

"We’ve got time before we play each other. But it’s just something friendly. We’ve got two parts of the bet," Wade said. "That’s one part that we thought was friendly, then we’ve got another where we send each other certain cases of wine depending on who wins and loses. So it’s cool. It’s just friendly banter back and forth just getting involved in the excitement that’s going on in both cities. So it’s cool to have that.