Mar 2, 2014, 8:23 PM EST
Second may be the first loser, but for Dale Earnhardt Jr., finishing second in Sunday’s The Profit on CNBC 500 at Phoenix International Raceway was a continuation of the best season start in his 15-year Sprint Cup career.
After winning his second Daytona 500 last Sunday, Earnhardt in the following days went on a monumental victory lap across the country to celebrate with media and fans across the country.
And while sleep was rare this past week as he jetted from town to town, Earnhardt was wide awake and on top of his game in Sunday’s race.
He could have potentially made it two wins in a row, but Kevin Harvick held him off on the final lap to relegate Junior to runner-up status.
Granted, there are still 34 races left, but a first and second place finish in the first two events, coupled with Earnhardt remaining atop the Sprint Cup standings, bodes well for NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver the last 11 years.
That he did well at Phoenix was not exactly a surprise, per se. Earnhardt used to do very well at the one-mile flat track.
In four straight races from 2002 through the spring race in 2005, Earnhardt drove his Dale Earnhardt Inc. No. 8 to two wins and two other top-five finishes.
Ironically, when he move to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, Junior began a performance nosedive at PIR.
From his first race in 2008 under the Hendrick banner through the end of 2012 – 10 races in total – Earnhardt managed no wins and just three top-10s.
But things began to turn around last year in a big way. In the second race of 2013, he started 21st and finished fifth. In last year’s fall Chase race, the second-to-last race of the season, he started 11th and finished fourth.
And then came Sunday. He started fifth, ran in the top-five almost the entire race and came home with a solid second-place finish.
Is Junior really and truly for real in 2014?
So far, so good, it would appear.
“I hope everybody enjoyed the race,” Earnhardt said. “We were really working out butts of there and giving it everything we had.”
And they most certainly did a good job, indeed.
While some cynics looked at Phoenix as a better measuring stick if Earnhardt is for real after his win at Daytona, next Sunday’s race in Las Vegas may actually be the best measuring stick of all.
Earlier in his career, he excelled on 1.5-mile tracks. But much like the way his early good fortune at PIR morphed to misfortune for several years, such has been the case for Earnhardt over the last few years, as well.
He began to climb out of the void last season. Even though he didn’t win a race in 2013, he did very well on several 1.5-mile or larger tracks: including fifth at Las Vegas, second at Fontana (a 2.0-mile track), 12th at Kentucky and eighth at Atlanta.
But it was in the Chase for the Sprint Cup that Earnhardt took things to a whole other level, especially in the closing stages of the season.
In addition to a sixth-place finish at New Hampshire and runner-up at Dover, he was eighth at Kansas, 15th at Charlotte, second at Talladega, eighth at Martinsville, second at Texas, fourth at Phoenix and third in the season finale at Homestead.
That’s why what Junior has done thus far in the first two races in 2014 isn’t all that much of a surprise in many ways.
He was a win waiting to happen last season, which he finally got a little late last week at Daytona. And other than eventual champion Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt was the most consistent driver during last year’s Chase.
“I think we just got a lot of momentum carried over from last year,” Earnhardt said. “We were running well in the Chase. I think the Chase performance we had got us pretty excited, real happy to look forward to this season.”
And that’s why there was absolutely no reason why he couldn’t pick up in 2014 where he left off in 2013.
And that’s exactly what he has done. He has a great chance to win for the first time at Las Vegas and keep his outstanding start to this season going.
“(Crew chief Steve Letarte) and those guys just keep getting better and better,” Earnhardt said. “These cars I’m driving I think are the best in the garage.”
And it certainly helps when you have the best driver in the garage thus far this season behind the wheel.
Follow me @JerryBonkowski
Nov 22, 2014, 11:21 PM EST
The world of motorsports — particularly NASCAR and NHRA — is mourning arguably the best public relations person it has ever seen, Denny Darnell, who passed away Saturday.
Nov 22, 2014, 6:15 PM EST
Will Owen, who impressively won the 2014 USF2000 race as a rookie at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this past May, is moving up the racing ladder.
Nov 22, 2014, 5:52 PM EST
Something a bit quicker than nine little reindeer…
Marco Andretti, Will Power, AJ Allmendinger go back to roots in big karting race this weekend in Las Vegas
Nov 22, 2014, 5:15 PM EST
Marco Andretti, reigning IndyCar champ Will Power and NASCAR driver AJ Allmendinger, are all going back to their racing roots this weekend in Las Vegas, taking part in one of the biggest karting events of the season.
Nov 22, 2014, 4:45 PM EST
Luke, Lambert, crew chief for Ryan Newman, has been named Federal-Mogul Motorparts’ “Problem Solver of the Year.” And with it comes a $100,000 prize that he’ll receive Dec. 4 in Las Vegas.
Nov 22, 2014, 4:30 PM EST
The former Grand Prix regular and current sports car racer chats with NBCSN’s Will Buxton in Abu Dhabi.
Nov 22, 2014, 3:50 PM EST
Mallya attacks Red Bull following its double exclusion from today’s qualifying session in Abu Dhabi.
Nov 22, 2014, 3:00 PM EST
di Grassi climbs from 18th on the grid to second at finish in Putrajaya ePrix; Nick Heidfeld found to have made pit stop car change outside permitted area, relegated to 19th.
Nov 22, 2014, 2:30 PM EST
The stage is set for the final showdown on Sunday. Will it be Lewis or Nico?
Nov 22, 2014, 1:45 PM EST
McLaren junior driver moves up to second in the championship with feature race win in Abu Dhabi.
Nov 22, 2014, 1:30 PM EST
The new cancer center’s lobby will be named in honor of RHR’s late mother, who succumbed to colon cancer in 2009.
Nov 22, 2014, 1:15 PM EST
The British F1 debutant will start his first grand prix from 17th place tomorrow.
Nov 22, 2014, 12:58 PM EST
He remains suspended by NASCAR, but Jeremy Mayfield continues his racing comeback this weekend at Myrtle Beach Speedway.
Nov 22, 2014, 12:30 PM EST
Ricciardo and Vettel to start from the back of the grid in Abu Dhabi.
Nov 22, 2014, 11:30 AM EST
The 22-year-old is not set to move up to F1 despite an incredible rookie season in GP2.
Nov 22, 2014, 11:15 AM EST
Valtteri Bottas and Williams best of the rest once again in Abu Dhabi qualifying.
Nov 22, 2014, 11:00 AM EST
The administrator put in charge of the ailing F1 team believes that a buyer can be found in the next couple of weeks.
Nov 22, 2014, 10:30 AM EST
“The technical people were panicking a little bit, being afraid that I would take some secrets.”
Nov 22, 2014, 10:13 AM EST
The Mexican driver will remain with Force India for 2015 alongside Nico Hulkenberg.
- Abu Dhabi GP Paddock Notebook – Saturday 0
- Red Bull drivers excluded from qualifying in Abu Dhabi 1
- Force India confirms Sergio Perez on multi-year deal 2
- Nico Rosberg rallies to pole position in Abu Dhabi 0
- Rosberg closes out Abu Dhabi practice fastest 1
- Abu Dhabi GP Paddock Notebook – Friday 0
- Jimmie Johnson: Kevin Harvick winning Sprint Cup title was “the right thing” 21