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
Jan 26, 2015, 8:45 PM EST
NASCAR heavily is considering using the May 16 showcase as a trial run of the rules package for the 2016 season and has begun informing Sprint Cup teams of the possibility.
Jan 26, 2015, 8:33 PM EST
Quick recap for Day 1 of 3 in South Florida for the Indy Lights contingent.
Jan 26, 2015, 8:06 PM EST
Kyle Busch say that he doesn’t see Toyota partners Joe Gibbs Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing working closely together and that “we’re idiots” for not doing so.
Jan 26, 2015, 7:04 PM EST
Kyle Busch is not pleased with those who have confused him with his brother in reporting on Kurt Busch’s recent court matter.
Jan 26, 2015, 6:05 PM EST
Will its expansion help or hurt its hopes of a Sprint Cup title?
Jan 26, 2015, 4:54 PM EST
Which Joe Gibbs Racing driver will have the best season in 2015? Newcomer Carl Edwards, or Matt Kenseth, or JGR stalwarts Kyle Busch or Denny Hamlin?
Jan 26, 2015, 4:38 PM EST
After last year’s exciting Chase for the Sprint Cup, NASCAR chairman Brian France painted a very positive state of the sport Monday. There are still challenges, but NASCAR is working at fixing those.
Jan 26, 2015, 4:05 PM EST
NASCAR Chairman Brian France says series officials are not looking to eliminate the four-car limit for teams.
Jan 26, 2015, 3:58 PM EST
The wireless communications company already has announced its departure after the end of its contract in 2016
Jan 26, 2015, 3:30 PM EST
Devon Amos, Jay Beasley, Collin Cabre, Natalie Decker, Kenzie Ruston, and Dylan Smith part of this year’s D4D program; an update on Daytona Rising renovation project.
Jan 26, 2015, 3:22 PM EST
Greg Morin, a pit coach overseeing the crews of Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., is leaving his position after January.
Jan 26, 2015, 3:08 PM EST
NASCAR has outlawed the practice of teams manipulating — or flaring out — of rear side skirts to produce an aerodynamic advantage.
Jan 26, 2015, 1:25 PM EST
The Grove gang reveals its lineup for the first F1 preseason test of 2015.
Jan 26, 2015, 12:00 PM EST
Video game retail company continues support of Joe Gibbs Racing’s XFINITY Series program.
Jan 26, 2015, 11:30 AM EST
Official launch of the new car is set for Friday.
Jan 26, 2015, 11:09 AM EST
NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett will join NBC and NBCSN’s coverage of NASCAR in 2015, it was announced Monday.
National Motorsports Press Association honors Lynda Petty, Kevin Harvick and others for service, achievement
Jan 26, 2015, 10:31 AM EST
Richard Petty’s late wife, Lynda, and 2014 Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick were among those who were honored during Sunday’s National Motorsports Press Association annual awards banquet.
Jan 26, 2015, 10:10 AM EST
Lotus hopes to put a less-than-competitive 2014 to rest with the help of its new car.
Jan 26, 2015, 9:36 AM EST
A long layoff has drivers such as Danica Patrick ready ‘to take out this aggression somewhere right now.’
Jan 25, 2015, 11:33 PM EST
A big fan of the Rolex 24 at Daytona, Dale Earnhardt Jr. posed a rather interesting question to his Twitter followers: Could NASCAR ever do — let alone consider — a 24-hour race?
Video from NASCAR America
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