AVONDALE, Ariz. -- So much for thinking Dale Earnhardt Jr. might take the rest of the regular season off.
After his historic Daytona 500 victory just a week ago, some purported that Earnhardt may rest on his laurels and coast into NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup. Under the changed format that basically equates to a "win and you're in" philosophy -- new for the 2014 season -- it almost gives Earnhardt and his No. 88 Chevrolet crew the chance to relax and enjoy the flexibility of trying different set-ups and strategies over the course of the spring and summer in preparation for the sport's 10-race playoff.
"I'd love to have won the race and I'm a little disappointed (we didn't)," Earnhardt said after finishing second to race-winner Kevin Harvick. "To come that close, our team is performing so well. We've got a lot of great chemistry and good communication going back and forth and everybody's confidence is very high and everybody's mood and morale is very high, so hopefully we can maintain that and not have any bad luck or make any mistakes and continue to keep working toward winning some more races. If we run second enough, we're bound to at least trip into one or two (wins)."
So clearly, the first thing on Earnhardt's mind is still finishing the race ahead of the other 42 cars on the track. On a day when Harvick's No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet had the rest of the field in a vice grip -- taking the lead on Lap 74 and holding it the rest of the way save for a quick pit stop -- Earnhardt nearly came within reach of winning back-to-back races for the first time in his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career.
Earnhardt said if only he'd had "10 more laps," he thought his 88 car would have caught the No. 4 Chevy, which had been the class of the field practically since they unloaded the haulers.
"Those guys were two-tenths faster than everybody all weekend in practice," said Earnhardt, who topped the charts in the first practice before ceding to Harvick for the next two. "They were just phenomenal. To be able to run with (Harvick), as we did all day, was a big confidence builder for us. Even at the end of the race, I thought our laps we put together coming up to the checkered (flag) were faster than him."
Earnhardt's excellent run at Phoenix -- a track where his only two wins came in back-to-back years a decade ago (2003-04) -- continues his reign atop the points standings, as he opens the season with consecutive top-five finishes for just the third time in his career (2004, '13).
Despite running so well in last year's Chase, the fact that Earnhardt has opened 2014 so strong is a bit of a surprise to even Earnhardt himself.
"I was wondering if we were going to carry on the momentum from last year. We were running so good in the Chase. And also with the rules -- the new height rules -- I was wondering where we were going to fall in comparison in performance with the competition. What did people learn over the offseason? Who was going to stand out -- like the 4 car did today and all weekend? It seems like we aren't behind. We aren't where the 4 car is, but we're definitely close and hopefully we can learn what we need to learn rapidly in the next several weeks and get up to par so we can win some races.
"There's a couple teams out there that are behind or not quite onto the new package and the new rules, and I'm glad we're doing pretty well and the performance is there for us. Hopefully we can maintain it as we go to a completely different track at Vegas."
If Earnhardt and co. are able to maintain the full-steam-ahead momentum that they built at the tail end of last year in 2014 and carry that into another solid run at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, it will be a true measure of the team's consistency and will clearly establish that the team is for real. Earnhardt hasn't historically fared well at the 1.5-mile tri-oval, notching just a pair of top-fives in 14 Cup starts.
Still, knowing he's the current chip leader playing at the high-roller table because of his Daytona win, there's a certain relaxed nature to Earnhardt right now that hasn't been as evident in the past. It came into play at Phoenix when it appeared that fuel mileage was going to decide the outcome.
"We probably would've gone with the same strategy (had we not won at Daytona) but it was less nerve-racking today. Normally you're just biting your fingernails when (crew chief Steve Letarte) says, 'We're two laps short, we've got to find two laps somewhere,' and the cautions are coming out and you think you're saving (gas) but you don't know exactly how much you're saving and it's just really, really nerve-racking. So today when he said that, I was like 'All right, if we run out, we run out. No big deal.' We can gamble and gamble with a better conscience."
Everything is falling into place in all the right ways for Earnhardt right now. The only better result at Phoenix would have been if Harvick had slipped up on one of several late restarts, but that's just splitting hairs. With a win in his pocket and his Chase ticket all but punched, some might treat their driver's seat as a La-Z-Boy recliner and kick back until September, but good luck convincing Earnhardt to do that.
"I feel good," he said. "I feel like we're really coming around the corner and peaking at the right time this season to try to run for the championship."
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