Dale Earnhardt Jr. closes off strong 2013 with hope for the future

HOMESTEAD, Fla. - There was a time not so long ago when a top-20 finish for Dale Earnhardt Jr. was cause for celebration. In 2009 and 2010, he was eliminated from Chase contention by Memorial Day, looking lost and adrift.

On Sunday, Earnhardt did even more to bury those ugly days in the back yard. He finished third in the Ford EcoBoost 400, leading 28 laps. Homestead concluded a Chase in which Earnhardt finished eighth or better eight times, and he finished the season as a whole in fifth, a single point behind Kyle Busch in fourth.

"Really happy to run as well as we have this season," Earnhardt said. "This has been one of the best years I've had, certainly the best year I've had working with Hendrick."

For several years now, Earnhardt has run up front. Not in front, as that would entail winning, and wins are still hard for Earnhardt to come by these days. In fact, he finished second on five different occasions this year, a monument to determination more than futility. In all, he notched 10 top-five finishes and 22 top-10s, a level of performance that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

"He's run so well," team owner Rick Hendrick said. "Now he's consistently in the top 5, top 3, leading laps. His confidence is at an all-time high ... You can see it in his step."

Earnhardt has raced at a good-but-not-great level for so long that the whole "he's not his daddy" comparisons are pretty much dead and gone. Of course he's not his daddy; neither is anyone else. But Earnhardt can go into the all-too-brief offseason knowing that his career continues on its upward trajectory.

"He told me tonight he can't wait to go to Daytona," Hendrick said. "I think he's got wins [ahead]. I think he's going to be a threat for the championship next year."

Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter.

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