Earnhardt Jr. Earns ‘Good Grades’ In 2013, Hopes Higher To Come

Although Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn’t win in 2013 he had one of his best seasons. He ran consistently well and finished No. 5 in the point standings to match his best Chase performances.

At the end of a season many members of the motorsports media rate drivers’ overall performances during the previous NASCAR Sprint Cup campaign.

It’s kinda like final grades from school – this driver gets an “A,” that one a “B,” and so forth, right on down to “F.”

Yeah, it’s all a matter of personal opinion, but then, doesn’t the motorsports media – me included – pretty much offer that all the time?

That said, you can easily figure what marks six-time champion Jimmie Johnson and 2013 runnerup Matt Kenseth received. They were at the top of the class.

There were other drivers who got grades that, while they didn’t make them class valedictorians, clearly indicated recognition of their performances.

I’m sure Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch were among this group.

And I’m also sure Dale Earnhardt Jr. was, too.

If he wasn’t, well, call that one huge error in judgment.

Earnhardt Jr. had a very, very good year. He wound up fifth in points, which matched his career-best showing in the Chase, achieved twice in 2004 and 2006.

Also, this season was a very nice rebound from 2012, when Earnhardt Jr. stood 11th in points until he had to sit out two races with a concussion that occurred during testing at Kansas and was exacerbated at a crash at Talladega, the fourth race of the Chase.

He ended the year 12th in points and, obviously, well out of contention for the title.

Unfortunately, he did not win a race in 2013. He hasn’t won since Michigan in June of 2012.

While “Win, Dale Win!” has become the mantra for the “Junior Nation” – a collection of fans that pales compared to that for any other driver – they have to realize some measure of satisfaction in that their driver ran consistently well all season and finished among the top five.

One of Earnhardt Jr.’s best runs in the Chase was at Dover, where he won the pole and finished in second place, one of three runnerup finishes in the final 10 races of the year.

Earnhardt had 10 top-five finishes and 22 among the top 10. More impressive is the fact that he finished among the top 10 in eight of the Chase’s 10 races.

That includes three runnerup finishes, at Dover, Talladega and Texas, and a third-place run at Homestead that sealed his fifth-place points finish.

By the way, Earnhardt Jr. wound up just a single point behind fourth-place Kyle Busch.

And let’s not forget he finished second in the Daytona 500 a harbinger that good things might come.

“We just got behind in the regular season by not winning enough, not doing enough to get bonus points,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Those points are so important. If you put a good 10 races together, add them bonus points on top of it, man, you’re going to be hard to beat.”

No doubt Earnhardt Jr. would have loved to win. What driver wouldn’t? But he said throughout the year that his confidence and faith in his Hendrick Motorsports team were so strong that, at the very least, he never doubted its ability to be victorious.

He stressed that at Homestead.

“Yeah, we’ve actually been really good every week since the Chase started,” Earnhardt Jr. said after the race. “I can’t remember, but I think we were pretty good at Chicago before we blew a motor.”

That blown engine sent Earnhardt Jr. to a 35th-place finish and put him in a hole in the standings – from which he escaped nicely

“We came to Homestead and tested,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I really liked how that worked out.  We worked on the car real hard and real smart.  We felt like we had a car that was going to come to us and it surely did.

“We weren’t that great at the start of the race, but as the race wore on, the thing really came to life.”

Steve Letarte became Earnhardt Jr.’s crew chief for the 2011 season after which the son of Dale Earnhardt earned his best statistical year since 2008, his first with Hendrick.

Earnhardt Jr. has only gotten better with Letarte’s leadership. And he knows it.

“I’m really happy to run as well as we have this season,” he said. “This has been one of the best years I’ve had, certainly the best year I’ve had working with Hendrick.

“I just want to give my team a lot of credit.  Steve, my engineers, did just an amazing job providing these good cars every week.”

If there have been good cars every week – and that seems obvious – Earnhardt Jr. can’t explain the reason why, although he’s tried.

“I’ve asked Steve over and over and asked everybody on the team at least once or twice what we’re doing different,” he said. “They said they’re not doing anything different.

“We have been more competitive, I think, not as a company, but I just think the No. 88 team has really stepped it up.”

Which, obviously, has been a boon for Earnhardt Jr. and fuels his – and those of his many fans – hopes for even better things to come, perhaps starting as early as 2014.

“I’m hoping next year we continue our trend and our trajectory and get a shot at winning a championship,” he said. “I think we can do it.”

And, if so, it naturally follows his many fans will be ecstatic – and he’ll get even higher grades.


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