Dale Earnhardt Jr. leads NASCAR point standings, enjoying momentum
Itâs said that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is off to the best start of his 14-year NASCAR Sprint Cup career.
The 38-year-old has recorded top-10 finishes in each of the first five events, averaging a 4.4-place finish, and leads the point standings heading to the circuitâs sixth stop, in Martinsville, Va., on Sunday.
âWhen I hear people talking about the fast start, I feel like youâve got to take a lot of different factors into the equation,â Earnhardt says. âWeâve had good fortune. (Certain) scenarios have been working in our favor ... and they donât always work in your favor. Youâre not always gonna come out on the better end of those deals, but we have.â
Itâs not like this is unexplored territory for the 10-time most popular driver. Last seasonâs full slate of top 15s through the first five races found him third in the standings. And in 2004 with Dale Earnhardt, Inc., he enjoyed his finest season to date, when he notched two wins in the first five events, though a 35th-place run in Las Vegas dropped the average finishing position to 10.4.
Earnhardt also scored the sole Daytona 500 victory of his career that season, and runs of fifth, first and 10th surrounded the Vegas dud. So technically, the start of that six-win season was his finest to date.
But youâll excuse his legion of fans if they choose to ride the momentum 2013 has brought. And the fact that Earnhardt is the only driver in the series that has yet to see 11th-place (or worse) at the end of a long Sunday afternoon finds his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team feeling upbeat as the circuit embarks on a trek of 15 straight race weekends through mid-July.
âWeâre feeling confident â the moodâs good,â Earnhardt says of his team. âWe see where we need to improve. We feel like weâve got pretty decent speed in the car in race trim.â
For a driver and team that once struggled to make the car better over the course of a race, the in-race improvement has been striking. In fact, that 4.4-place average finish is a full 15 positions better than where theyâve managed to qualify on average â a testament to the communication between driver and crew chief Steve Letarte.
âWeâve gotten pretty good at closing races, something I never really was good at for years, and now weâre doing it as good as anybody,â Earnhardt says. â(Weâre) just riding the wave â just real happy with how things are going for our team.â
Still, qualifying further up the pylon may change those second- to seventh-place finishes into wins.
âWeâd love to qualify better, to feel more dependable when we put the car in qualifying trim,â says Earnhardt.
Itâs a sentiment Letarte echos, though he realizes that the team has put itself in position to win numerous times. And if they do it often enough, those wins will come.
âYou canât win from 15th; you canât win from 10th, the sportâs too difficult,â Letarte says. âYou have to run in the top 5 or top 7 to win races â and weâve done that all season. And we think thatâs the formula for success that will get us to Victory Lane throughout the year.â
That brings Earnhardt and crew to Martinsville, a quaint .526-mile, paperclip-shaped oval thatâs as much of a throwback venue as one will find on a schedule saturated with 1.5-mile intermediate clones. Itâs a racetrack that has treated Earnhardt well in the past â he has showings of seventh or better in four of his last five starts â though he has yet to earn the coveted Grandfather Clock trophy awarded to the winner.
At this rate, though, Earnhardt is happy to have gotten out of the gates quickly, knowing the points earned early are insurance for the potholes that speckle an arduous season, wrought with trial.
âItâs a long year,â he says. âYouâre going to have some bad luck â nobody runs the whole season perfectly â but weâre just trying to get as many points as early as we can so when that bad luck comes it doesnât hit us as hard.â