It took a second post-race fracas in as many race weekends to relegate NASCAR's most popular driver to an afterthought. While crews and drivers were pushing and shoving on pit road, Dale Earnhardt Jr. departed Auto Club Speedway with the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points lead in tow.
Now he carries it into tiny Martinsville Speedway, once again overlooked given the continuing saga involving Southern California combatants Joey Logano and Tony Stewart, and the injured Denny Hamlin. As far as Earnhardt is concerned, everyone else can keep on scuffling. He doesn't mind working in the shadows, for once.
"I feel like it gives us the opportunity to keep focusing on what we need to do. We're still not winning races, and I don't expect to get much attention until we can win races," Earnhardt, leader in the standings by 12 points over Brad Keselowski, said Tuesday on a conference call with reporters.
"We've finished well, but I think there's a lot of areas where we can improve. We get to focus on that being out of the scope and out of the spotlight. We can pay more attention to, how do we keep getting better as a team? If we go out and win some races, we'll get credit where credit is due. But we've run well, we've gotten lucky, we've had good cars, we've worked hard. But everybody in the garage has done the same thing. There are other guys in the series not doing anything any flashier than we are. So I wouldn't expect the spotlight to be much brighter than it is. Hopefully we can win some races, though, and change that."
Earnhardt may not have won since his victory last summer at Michigan that snapped an epic 143-race skid, but his level of consistency has become the standard on NASCAR's premier series. This season, he's the only driver to have finished in the top 10 in all five Sprint Cup events. Since missing two races late last year because of lingering concussion symptoms, he's notched top-10s in seven of his nine starts and completed all but two laps over that span.
That trend continued in the most recent Sprint Cup event at Auto Club Speedway, where Earnhardt used a devastating finishing kick to surge from 18th to second over the final green-flag run. Now it's on to half-mile Martinsville, where Earnhardt has never won, but where he finished third last spring, has a personal-best driver rating and has led more laps (868) than at any other venue on the sport's top circuit.
As he did in Southern California, Earnhardt has shown a knack this season for making up positions late in a race -- a trait for which he credits strategy calls made by crew chief Steve Letarte. At Fontana, a decision to take four tires and a fortuitous restart position in the favored outside lane helped Earnhardt seize the points lead from reigning champion Keselowski, who suffered his first finish of the season outside of the top five.
All of which makes Earnhardt wonder if his current points position really reflects how well his car has run. No question, he's managed the finishes. But looking back over the first five races, he sees room for improvement.
"Just circumstance and good fortune has been a big part of it," Earnhardt said. "We've ran good, we've had good cars, good speed. ? I think we're a better team than we were last year but still ?? I just feel like that we need to be winning races, we need to be running up in the top two, three all day long. We just need to run a little bit better. There's just a little bit there for us to gain until I feel super comfortable and feel, I guess, like our statistics and our points position really reflect on our performance."
Between the blocking controversy ignited by Logano and Stewart and the fractured vertebra that's sidelined Hamlin -- who will be out at least five races, and have Mark Martin substituting for him at Martinsville -- there's plenty going on to steal the spotlight from Earnhardt, who sounds more than willing to give it up. While attention is diverted elsewhere, the points leader wants to improve his No. 88 program and prepare for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
"We've got time in the season to get there, and we did that last year. We got faster throughout the season. And by mid?summer, we were really one of the best teams out there, I thought," he said. "So I've got good confidence in the team that we're going to be able to gain what I think we need to gain to be able to compete once the Chase comes around, and hopefully we'll have that opportunity to be in the Chase at that point. But we've still got more to gain. There's guys out there that I see that have more speed, and I think that's the only thing that concerns me."
See the graphic below for more on Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s stats at Martinsville Speedway:
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