Bears

Junior likes chances as Chase for Sprint Cup begins

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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.."

Why the Bears have so much confidence in Mitchell Trubisky, even as the losses mount

Why the Bears have so much confidence in Mitchell Trubisky, even as the losses mount

The Bears are hurtling toward another last-place finish in the NFC North, and Mitchell Trubisky is 2-4 as the team’s starting quarterback after Sunday’s 27-24 loss to the Detroit Lions. But talk to any of Trubisky’s teammates and it's clear they believe there’s a light at the end of the tunnel for this team, and it’s because of the bright future their quarterback has.

“He’s still young right now, a little green,” offensive lineman Bobby Massie said. "But he’s getting better every week, man.”

Explained fellow offensive lineman Kyle Long: “Just his poise and sense of urgency, at the end of the game to have the wherewithal to make the throws he’s making. Obviously it’s not all perfect — he’s a young quarterback in this league — but he has the confidence and trust of the guys around him. And that’s a rare thing in this league to have.”

Massie, like Long, also used the word “rare” in describing Trubisky, a guy who’s only started 20 games since leaving Mentor High School in 2013 (13 games at North Carolina, one in the preseason and six in the regular season). Massie, Long and the rest of the Bears’ locker room know how good Trubisky can be — or maybe, the way they’re thinking, will be — despite some uneven games this year.

The flashes of what the No. 2 overall pick can do keep on showing up, like that 18-yard jump pass to Kendall Wright that set up Connor Barth’s game-winning field goal in Week 6 against the Baltimore Ravens, or his instinctive 19-yard scramble on fourth-and-13 on Sunday that set up a game-tying 46-yard field-goal attempt that Barth missed.

“That’s his mentality — y’all got to see his mentality,” running back Tarik Cohen said. “That situation, fourth and 13, he’s not going down, not taking a sack, not throwing the ball away — he’s going to find a way to make a play, and he’s going to lead us to where we need to be.”

On the other hand, there were still some missed throws and reads for Trubisky (like not connecting with Benny Cunningham on a check-down five yards from the end zone in the first quarter) that serve as a reminder of his greenhorn status.

But it’s what Trubisky has done before and after those highlight or lowlight-reel plays that’s building a groundswell of confidence in him among his teammates.

The Bears got the ball on their own 17-yard line with 91 seconds left in the fourth quarter needing a field goal to tie the Lions on Sunday. When Trubisky entered the huddle, he was calm and confident — same as he was in the first quarter of the game, when the stakes weren't so high.

“He came to huddle and told everybody, 'Calm down, we’re going to win this game,'" wide receiver Dontrelle Inman said. “And that’s what the greats do. There’s no up and down with the emotional level when it comes time to actually go win the game. That’s a plus for him.

“He’s a competitor, and you see it week in and week out. He’s never going to give up. That’s the quarterback you want to be with you and throwing you the ball.”

That Trubisky’s teammates have so much confidence in him — despite the Bears’ 3-7 record — is a significant positive for his long-term development (that he’s only thrown one interception in his last 120 pass attempts is another positive). On Sunday, coach John Fox and offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains seemed to have more confidence in Trubisky, too, with the pair opening up the playbook and leading to the Bears having their best offensive game of the season.

That trust might not lead to a lot of wins this year. It might not be enough to keep the current coaching staff in place. But the way Trubisky’s teammates talk about him, they don’t see any hurdles the rookie can’t clear on his way to becoming a legit franchise quarterback.

“It’s rare and it’s the start of something special that we get to see,” Massie said. “Hopefully — I can’t predict the f***ing future — but from this point on, it looks like he’s going to be a special player.”

Leonard Floyd's 'really serious knee injury' further bangs up Bears defense, stalls rising star's growth

Leonard Floyd's 'really serious knee injury' further bangs up Bears defense, stalls rising star's growth

You couldn’t really tell watching it live, but the replay told the story: Kyle Fuller’s shoulder pads plowed right into Leonard Floyd’s right knee.

And that’s why last year’s first-round pick was down on the turf at Soldier Field. That’s why the cart came out from the southwest tunnel. That’s why the thousands of fans in the stands watched in silence.

After the game, head coach John Fox said what could have been guessed by most who watched that replay and watched Floyd leave the field on the cart.

“Leonard Floyd left with what looks like a really serious knee injury,” Fox said, a somewhat unusual admittance of severity from the oft-secretive coach in an oft-secretive industry.

“I hate to speculate,” he continued, “but usually when you get taken out on a cart, it’s not great. We’ll evaluate it. I’ll talk to our docs more today and tonight, and we will continue to evaluate tomorrow.”

For the Bears and their fans, this kind of news has become all too familiar. The linebacking corps alone has seen injuries to four of its best players: Jerrell Freeman, Danny Trevathan, Willie Young and now Floyd. Then there are the season-ending injuries to safety Quintin Demps, tight end Zach Miller and wide receivers Kevin White and Cameron Meredith.

And it’s not just the Bears. This is the new normal in the NFL, as the absences of stars like J.J. Watt, Aaron Rodgers and Richard Sherman have illustrated.

But for the Bears in particular, this is a really tough one to see.

Floyd has been a force for the defense this season, the kind of quarterback’s nightmare that Ryan Pace & Co. envisioned he’d be when they took Floyd with the No. 9 pick in last year’s draft. He entered Sunday’s action with the second-most sacks on the team, and only 29 players in the league had more than his 4.5 sacks.

After missing games and battling concussion issues as a rookie last season — and still recording seven sacks — this was supposed to be the full season from Floyd that would show how much of a monster he could be. Instead, though, it sounds like that season will be cut short, a building block on that side of the ball stalled.

The football implications, though, did not seem top of mind for many Bears players, who offered their well wishes for their teammate. Remember, too, that this is a team that has already been through Miller’s ordeal, the tight end confined to a Louisiana hospital as he recovered from almost losing his leg in last month’s loss to the New Orleans Saints.

“I told him I love him and I’m going to lay it on the line for him,” fellow linebacker Pernell McPhee said when asked what he said to Floyd as the second-year Georgia product was leaving the field.

And that wasn’t all.

As the media was leaving McPhee’s locker, he told everybody to “say a prayer for my boy.”