Skip to content

Off to best start of his career, Dale Earnhardt Jr. proving he’s for real in 2014

Mar 2, 2014, 8:23 PM EDT

Dale Earnhardt Jr AP

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

Latest Posts
  1. NASCAR AMERICA: The strategy of the Contender Round (VIDEO)

    Sep 30, 2014, 7:00 PM EDT

    Federated Auto Parts 400 Getty Images

    How do you prepare for two races and then a free-for-all at Talladega? Rick Allen and Kyle Petty of NASCAR AMERICA discuss.

  2. NASCAR: Nationwide Series crewman suspended for violating substance abuse policy

    Sep 30, 2014, 6:15 PM EDT

    nationwideserieslogo

    Also: Crew chief in same series fined, put on probation for car weight issue from last weekend at Dover.

  3. F1: 3rd-place battle between Williams and Ferrari heads for Suzuka

    Sep 30, 2014, 5:30 PM EDT

    Valtteri Bottas, Kimi Raikkonen AP

    Williams’ gap on Ferrari for third in the Constructors’ Championship is down to nine points going into this weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix.

  4. WATCH LIVE: Dale Earnhardt Jr. talks Contender Round on NASCAR AMERICA

    Sep 30, 2014, 4:45 PM EDT

    AAA 400 - Qualifying Getty Images

    Also coming up today: A closer look at the Contender Round tracks and who’s been successful at them; Joe Gibbs Racing focusing on continued momentum at Kansas; more radio goodness with the Dover Chase edition of “Scan All 43.”

  5. IndyCar Driver Review: Mikhail Aleshin

    Sep 30, 2014, 4:15 PM EDT

    AleshinSunIMS Getty Images

    Sixteenth in the 2014 IndyCar season was rookie Mikhail Aleshin, ever the fighter.

  6. Formula E CEO Agag hopeful for several motor/battery manufacturers in 2015-16

    Sep 30, 2014, 3:50 PM EDT

    Photo courtesy FIA Formula E Photo courtesy FIA Formula E

    Agag hopes for “three or four different makers of motors and batteries” during F-E’s second season.

  7. IndyCar Driver Review: Justin Wilson

    Sep 30, 2014, 3:15 PM EDT

    JWilFinal2014 Getty Images

    P15 caps a difficult IndyCar season for Justin Wilson and Dale Coyne Racing.

  8. NASCAR: Corey Lajoie set for four-race run in No. 98 Nationwide Series car

    Sep 30, 2014, 2:47 PM EDT

    Sylvania 300 - Qualifying Getty Images

    The son of two-time Nationwide Series champion Randy Lajoie will race the upcoming NNS events at Kansas, Charlotte, Texas, and Homestead.

  9. IndyCar Driver Review: Charlie Kimball

    Sep 30, 2014, 2:15 PM EDT

    Shell Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston - Day 3 Getty Images

    Charlie Kimball fights through an OK, but often challenging, 2014 season en route to P14 into the IndyCar standings.

  10. NASCAR: Roster set for October’s Drive for Diversity combine

    Sep 30, 2014, 1:55 PM EDT

    nascar logo 2014 Getty Images

    20 multicultural and female drivers from across the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and South America will seek to earn a spot in the D4D’s Class of 2015.

  11. IndyCar: James Hinchcliffe presides over Charlie Kimball’s wedding

    Sep 30, 2014, 1:15 PM EDT

    Hinchcliffe Getty Images

    “The Mayor” has now apparently become The Minister.

  12. IndyCar: Penske drivers off to Verizon HQ; CFH ones to Mid-Ohio today

    Sep 30, 2014, 12:00 PM EDT

    MAVTV 500 Getty Images

    A busy day for members of two IndyCar teams, as Penske and CFH drivers head to New Jersey and Mid-Ohio, respectively.

  13. It’s been two years since Kobayashi’s Suzuka podium with Sauber (VIDEO)

    Sep 30, 2014, 11:00 AM EDT

    F1 Grand Prix of Brazil - Previews Getty Images

    Two years ago, Kamui Kobayashi stood on an F1 podium in his home country, with Sauber. It seems so long ago, now.

  14. Stats of note heading into Suzuka

    Sep 30, 2014, 10:00 AM EDT

    Sebastian Vettel AP

    Some of the stats of note as we head into the Japanese Grand Prix.

  15. IndyCar: What’s Honda’s next move, driver-wise?

    Sep 30, 2014, 9:00 AM EDT

    Honda Indy Toronto - Day 1 Getty Images

    Honda has Ryan Hunter-Reay, but losing Simon Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden are big blows from marketing and on-track standpoints.

  16. NASCAR AMERICA: Tony Stewart still shaken following fatal crash (VIDEO)

    Sep 29, 2014, 9:30 PM EDT

    Tony Stewart Press Conference Getty Images

    More comments from Stewart’s press conference on Monday in North Carolina.

  17. NASCAR AMERICA: Jeff Gordon, 24 team make statement at Dover (VIDEO)

    Sep 29, 2014, 8:30 PM EDT

    AAA 400 Getty Images

    Instead of racing to protect his position in the Chase, Jeff Gordon went into attack mode Sunday at Dover – and it paid off with a win. Check out his Victory Lane interview with NASCAR AMERICA’s Kelli Stavast here.

  18. Everything you need to know about the 2014 Chasers at Kansas

    Sep 29, 2014, 7:30 PM EDT

    Kevin Harvick AP

    All the notes and numbers to keep in mind as the Contender Round begins on Kansas’ 1.5-mile oval.

  19. WATCH LIVE: NASCAR AMERICA recaps Dover, Tony Stewart presser at 7 p.m. ET

    Sep 29, 2014, 6:45 PM EDT

    AAA 400 Getty Images

    Coming up: Highlights from the first cut race of the Chase; reports on Kevin Harvick’s tire failure and Hendrick Motorsports; Tony Stewart speaks about trying to carry on after his involvement in a fatal sprint car accident.

  20. F1: Kevin Magnussen prepared for future – whatever it may be

    Sep 29, 2014, 5:45 PM EDT

    Kevin Magnussen AP

    Time will tell if K-Mag will have a sophomore season in F1. But he reckons that if he didn’t do well this year with McLaren, he wasn’t cut out for the series in the first place.

Video from NASCAR America

Gordon: Win was great team statement
Top 10 NASCAR Driver Searches
  1. J. Gordon (1682)
  2. K. Harvick (1423)
  3. T. Stewart (1093)
  4. K. Busch (1068)
  5. J. Coulter (944)
  1. J. Logano (925)
  2. R. Blaney (918)
  3. B. Myers (893)
  4. J. Johnson (889)
  5. K. Larson (872)