Nov 17, 2013, 7:56 PM EDT
Seeing Dale Earnhardt Jr. once again battle for a win in tonight’s Sprint Cup season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, you couldn’t help but wonder what might have been if he hadn’t had his engine blow up in a smoky display in the September Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway.
Perhaps the majority of Junior Nation felt that way at some point as well. Earnhardt suffered a 35th-place result in the Windy City thanks to that motor, but in the final nine races, Earnhardt went: Sixth, second, eighth, 15th, second, eighth, second, fourth, and finally, third tonight in South Florida.
But while Earnhardt, in his words, “would just love to go to another race next week,” he believes the Chicagoland episode probably didn’t have much of an impact on his championship hopes.
“We didn’t win enough races in the regular season,” he said. “We didn’t win any. That was the difference. When we started the Chase, we were already in the hole a little bit to Matt. It’s too competitive. Just like the end of this race, the reason why I couldn’t get Matt is because he’s running second. The guy in second, the guy in first, they’re not going to be easy to pass.
“We just got behind in the regular season not winning enough, not doing enough to get bonus points. Those guys did. Those points are so important. If you put a good 10 races together, add them bonus points on top of it – man, you’re going to be hard to beat.”
Nonetheless, Earnhardt put together his best stretch of the season when it counted, and it paid off with a fifth-place finish in the Sprint Cup standings – his best season-ending ranking in the last seven seasons.
When asked what made the difference for him, crew chief Steve Letarte and the entire No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports squad in these final 10 races, Earnhardt insisted that he’s “asked everybody on the team at least once or twice what we’re doing different.”
According to NASCAR’s most popular driver, he was met with the response that they weren’t doing anything different.
“I really don’t know why,” he said. “I have the same feeling, like our cars are way faster. We have been more competitive…I just think the 88 team has really stepped it up. But each year, we’ve gotten better.
“When we first started working together – it’s easy to forget about all this, but when me and Steve started working together, we were working our guts out to finish in the Top 10. Each year, it’s kind of gotten easier to run a little better.”
And that should make Junior Nation eye the 2014 season with anticipation that their man will be able to fight for a championship.