By Mike Hembree
Special to the NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s season ended with a glaring "0" in the victory column, but his run over the schedule's final two months kept the spark of optimism alive in the No. 88 team.
Earnhardt finished third to winner Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth in Sunday's Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway and claimed fifth in the final points standings. In the season's last nine races, he had only one finish worse than eighth and scored three seconds.
"I'm 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 (Motorsports, which he joined for the 2008 season). Just want to give my team a lot of credit. Steve Letarte (crew chief), my engineers, did just an amazing job providing these good cars every week. I'm hoping next year we continue that trend and that trajectory and get a shot at winning a championship. I think we can do it."
Earnhardt led 28 laps, including four of the final 30, Sunday and battled Hamlin and Kenseth in the top three over the closing miles.
"We came here and tested," he said. "Really liked how that worked out. Worked on the car real hard Saturday. Worked on it real smart. Felt like we had a car that was going to come to us, and it surely did. We weren't that great at the start of the race, but as the race wore on, the thing really came to life."
The same could be said of Earnhardt's season. After some tough going in the spring and summer, the 88 team became a force to be reckoned with in the Chase period. Only a blown motor -- and a 35th-place finish -- in the Chase opener at Chicago stained the closing run.
What sparked the surge?
"I've asked Steve over and over, asked my car chief, Jason (Burdett), over and over, and asked everybody on the team at least once or twice what we're doing different," Earnhardt said. "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. We have been more competitive, I think, not as a company -- I just think the 88 team has really stepped it up.
"But each year, like I said, 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."