This is the ninth in a series of 2013 Sprint Cup Series driver recaps that will be featured on NASCAR.com
Dale Earnhardt Jr. knows his best season in seven years could have been even better.
NASCAR's most popular driver took a big step forward in 2013, using a strong start and an even better finishing kick to record a fifth-place finish in points that was his best since 2006. Earnhardt was especially strong in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, where he posted an average finish of 5.6 over the final nine events of the playoff. It was an engine failure in the Chase opening at Chicagoland, though, that ultimately prevented Earnhardt from challenging Jimmie Johnson for the championship.
Wait -- Earnhardt and championship, used in the same sentence? Yes, his season was that good, and the driver of the No. 88 car is hoping to carry that momentum into 2014. There was only one thing missing this past season, and it was a trip to Victory Lane.
Goodness, he came close. Second in the Daytona 500. Second at Fontana. Second at Dover after starting from the pole. Second at Talladega and Texas. And third in the season finale at Homestead-Miami, where he led 28 laps late in the running and appeared to have the best car until Denny Hamlin snuck in for the victory.
"I enjoyed all the races in the Chase. We ran really well, were real competitive," said Earnhardt, who this year won the Most Popular Driver award for the record 11th straight time. "? I thought the Homestead thing was magic. For some reason, it just kind of lined up. I wish I could have won. I was disappointed, and still think about what I could have done, why I didn't win. I should have won. I had the best car, had the fastest car. I should have won. I don't know why I didn't win."
Earnhardt's most recent race victory was at Michigan in the summer of 2012, which means he'll carry a streak of 55 winless event weekends into the Daytona 500. But such a skid is hardly the cause of hand-wringing that it once was, given the strength the No. 88 car showed on a consistent basis throughout the 2013 campaign. What clicked? It's hard to tell. Crew chief Steve Letarte said the team had a plan to unroll better cars for the Chase, perhaps one reason for the program's performance in the playoff.
It also can't hurt that the No. 88 car is stabled at Hendrick Motorsports alongside the Johnson's team, who this year won his sixth title at NASCAR's top level. Otherwise it was just business as usual, the same people working better together and improving over time.
"I've asked Steve over and over, asked my car chief Jason (Burdette) over and over, and asked everybody on the team at least once or twice what we're doing different. They said they're not doing anything different. You know, I really don't know why. I have the same feeling, like our cars are way faster," Earnhardt said.
"We have been more competitive, I think not just as a company, I think the 88 team has really stepped it up. But each year ? we've gotten better. As a team, we've gotten better. When we first started working together, it's easy to forget about all this, but when me and Steve started working together, we were working our guts out to finish in the top 10. Each year it's kind of gotten easier to run a little better."
There were the occasional hiccups, like a trio of engine failures and then a bad alternator that derailed a promising run at Texas in the spring. But Earnhardt clearly left 2013 feeling optimistic, and knowing that race wins are key to his team taking the next step. And not just to earn the payoff of reaching Victory Lane, but also to accrue bonus points that will keep him closer to the Chase leaders once the championship hunt begins.
"We need to win some more races in the regular season to give ourselves some bonus points going into the Chase," Earnhardt said. "? Even with 10 races to go, the bonus points are a steep hill in front of you, when you're a guy sitting there eighth or 10th or 13th place in points starting the Chase off, and the guy leading the Chase field already has 15 bonus points, or whatever it is this year. That's a steep hill to climb."
And yet, if this past season was any indication, the No. 88 team is clearly on the ascent. The 22 top-10s Earnhardt accumulated in 2013 were a personal record, and there's a clear sense of optimism surrounding his program for next year. Not even the lack of a victory can dampen that.
"I expect us to continue our trajectory to get better, and I expect us to have a lot to enjoy and a lot of good fortune next year," Earnhardt said. "I'd be real surprised if things aren't as good or better than they were this past season, and I'm looking forward to that."
FULL SERIES COVERAGE
SEASON IN REVIEW
- Dec. 11: Carl Edwards
- Dec. 12: Kasey Kahne
- Dec. 13: Ryan Newman
- Dec. 16: Kurt Busch
- Dec. 17: Greg Biffle
- Dec. 18: Joey Logano
- Dec. 19: Clint Bowyer
- Dec. 20: Jeff Gordon
- Dec. 23: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
- Dec. 26: Kyle Busch
- Dec. 27: Kevin Harvick
- Dec. 30: Matt Kenseth
- Jan. 2: Jimmie Johnson
- Motor Racing
- Sports & Recreation