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Dale Earnhardt Jr. is finishing like he started, closing his best season in years with a surge even more impressive than the one that kicked off this 2013 campaign. Now with only the finale left on the schedule, there's just one puzzle piece remaining to complete the strongest season in almost a decade for NASCAR's most popular driver.
"A win would help," crew chief Steve Letarte said after Earnhardt's fourth-place run Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway, his seventh top-10 finish in this Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. "Right now we just have a lot of good runs. We're ready for a great one."
They've come close, using a trio of runner-up finishes to climb from 13th to fifth in points over the course of the playoff. Take Earnhardt's engine failure and subsequent 35th-place result in the Chase opener at Chicagoland out of the equation, and his average finish in the remaining events is 5.8. That's notably better than the 8.8 accumulated over the same span by current second-place driver Matt Kenseth, who finished 23rd Sunday. And it's within striking range of the 4.6 average in the past eight events of leader Jimmie Johnson, who can clinch his sixth title with a finish of 23rd or better at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
That speed was evident this past Sunday at Phoenix, when Earnhardt lost a lap early after making an extra pit stop to address a loose wheel, and still rallied for his best finish at the one-mile track since 2005. Of course, the mistake likely cost him a chance to challenge winner Kevin Harvick. Even so, his No. 88 cars have been formidable every week.
"We've been fast since the Chase started," Earnhardt said at Phoenix. "We've been quick and one of the best cars every week. So hopefully if we don't get this (next) race, if we don't win damn Homestead, we'll still have speed when we show up in Daytona. It would be good if we could go ahead and get one, but if we have to wait, hopefully we haven't lost anything when next season starts."
Even without a victory, Earnhardt is easily enjoying his best season since his heyday at Dale Earnhardt Inc. If he remains in his current position in the standings -- Earnhardt is currently 17 points ahead of Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon in sixth -- he'd secure his best points finish since 2006. If he can overtake fourth-place Kyle Busch, who is six points ahead of him, he'd record his best finish since he placed a career-best third in 2003.
Matching that high-water mark might prove difficult, given that third-place Harvick is 29 points ahead. But clearly, this is the more potent Earnhardt everyone envisioned when he first joined the Hendrick powerhouse before the 2008 campaign.
"I've got to give credit to the team," Earnhardt said. "The guys are working hard. They're doing really good work. Just because we're not in the title hunt, they're not laying down. They're working as hard as anybody. Steve is doing a good job. They're doing a great job. They're putting great setups under the cars."
Earnhardt's surge comes as teammate Johnson -- whose cars are assembled in the same 48/88 shop at the Hendrick facility -- is zeroing in on a sixth championship, which appears much more likely after the turn of events at Phoenix. Letarte and Johnson's crew chief Chad Knaus are veteran stable mates, going back to the days when the former was car chief and then crew chief on Jeff Gordon's team, which was then housed with Johnson's in what was a 24/48 shop. "We've been working together a long time," Letarte said.
And the success of one often buoys the other, exactly what owner Rick Hendrick envisioned when he shuffled personnel and brought the 88 and 48 teams under the same roof before the 2011 campaign. Although Letarte doesn't think strength is necessarily guaranteed to carry over from the end of one season to the start of the next -- "rules change, everything changes," he said -- the team has clearly benefitted from a blueprint that has it peaking at the most important time of the year.
"I think we've had definitely some better cars here toward the Chase," Letarte said. "We had a plan, and the plan was to make the Chase, to build new cars, to redo old cars, to test toward the end of the year. Our goal all year long was to be great in the final 10, and we've been really, really good in seven of them, average in one of them, and blew up in one of them. So it is what it is. Can't go back and redo the first one."
But oh if they could, given that Earnhardt was running in the top 10 at Chicagoland before his engine failure -- well, that's for the citizens of Junior Nation to lament. Regardless, it's a hopeful finishing stretch that to Letarte is reminiscent of how the No. 88 team opened the season, with five straight top-seven results that had Earnhardt in the points lead after Fontana.
"Reminds me a lot of the beginning of the year," Letarte said. "We're kind of bookending the year. We had speed in the middle, but we broke a motor at the first Michigan leading, blew a tire at the second Michigan, broke an alternator running second or third at Texas. We've had a lot of good cars go bad, and unfortunately we've had a lot of bad cars run all day. We didn't quite spread them out like we should. But it's a lot of fun. We're hitting on all cylinders. We tested Homestead, and hopefully we can go down there and try to get a trophy."
Which for Earnhardt in this 2013 season is the only puzzle piece that remains.
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