While NASCAR’s latest off-track feud involving three-time Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart and Penske Racing’s Joey Logano took center stage during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Fontana, Calif., and this past off week, it was Dale Earnhardt Jr. who has made the biggest noise to start off the season.
His runner-up finish at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana was his fifth consecutive top-10 finish and the season-long run has elevated him to the top of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings, 12 points ahead of defending series champion Brad Keselowski. Earnhardt Jr., off to the best start of his career, has shown the signs of a championship contender with his consistent performances and ability to find his way to the front.
“We just stick together,” Earnhardt Jr. said of his Hendrick Motorsports team. “We were pretty good at closing races -- something I never really was good at for years – and now we're doing it as good as anybody. Just riding the wave. Just real happy with how things are going for our team.”
The confidence Earnhardt Jr. is exuding can be seen in his performances. He is the only Sprint Cup Series driver to finish in the top 10 in each of the first five races of the season, which includes runner-up finishes at Daytona and Auto Club Speedway.
What may be more impressive is the way Earnhardt Jr. has had to battle through the field to rally strong finishes after sub-par qualifying efforts. He has qualified 19th or worse in three of the five races and while crew chief Steve Letarte is pleased with the team’s performance he knows it can only improve.
“We’re racing very well,” Letarte said. “I don’t think we’ve had the best cars. I think we’ve had good cars. I don’t think we’ve been bad. But we’re racing very well, and it feels good to race well. I know that sounds silly, but sometimes we get lost in all this practice speeds and social media and the world and they report every lap and every this and every that.
“It’s a contest of not just speed, but the guy has to get to the finish. You’ve got to do pit stops, you’ve got to do restarts, you’ve got to communicate.”
Earnhardt Jr., who is on top of the point standings for the first time since a two-week stretch last summer, understands that 21 races remain before the Chase for the Sprint Cup 12-driver championship field is set. Building on his early-season success is what will help him challenge for his first career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.
“Everybody wants to be in the Chase; it’s so important to be in the Chase,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “So much publicity for your team and so much excitement to be able to race for the championship. Trying to build on the points early is important to me, but we’ve been so lucky in so many scenarios too in order to finish like we have in the last couple of weeks, but it’s a long year.”
Earnhardt Jr. will look to maintain the Sprint Cup Series points lead when the series travels to Martinsville (Va.) Speedway this weekend before heading to Texas Motor Speedway for next Saturday night’s NRA 500.