Granted, it’s early. But here’s a Dale Earnhardt Jr. statistic worth noting: for the second time in his career, he has led the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points for the first two weeks of the season.
After his Daytona 500 victory and second-place finish this past Sunday at Phoenix, he’s likely causing odds makers to reset his chances of winning the series championship for the first time, as the series rolls into Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Only once before has Earnhardt had this sort of start, in 2004 – his first Daytona 500 victory, followed by a fifth-place finish at North Carolina Motor Speedway (Rockingham), which gave him two weeks’ time atop the standings.
Said Earnhardt, following the strong run at Phoenix: “I would have loved to have won the race … but our team is performing so well. Got a lot of great chemistry and good communication going back and forth. Everybody’s confidence is very high. Everybody’s mood and morale is really high.”
Las Vegas has been a so-so proposition for Earnhardt through the years, with seven top 10s but only two top fives in 14 starts. An average finish of 15.6 and a Driver Rating of 88.2, ninth-best in the series, show consistency in lieu of trips to Victory Lane. Consistency, though, takes a back seat under the new Chase format. It’s all about winning; by capturing the Daytona 500 Earnhardt virtually assured himself a spot in NASCAR’s “playoffs.”
Somewhat lost amid the celebration of winning the 500 and nearly winning again at Phoenix is the fact that Earnhardt’s resurgence actually cranked up late last season; he had eight top 10s in the 10-race Chase including three second-place finishes. That clearly set the table for this year’s impressive start.
“I was wondering if we would carry on the momentum from last year, running so good in the Chase,” Earnhardt said. “The performance is there for us. Hopefully we can maintain it. We go to a completely different track [this week] at Vegas, but we have a whole day Thursday [during testing] to figure it out.”