It’s said that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is off to the best start of his 14-year NASCAR Sprint Cup career.
The 38-year-old has recorded top-10 finishes in each of the first five events, averaging a 4.4-place finish, and leads the point standings heading to the circuit’s sixth stop, in Martinsville, Va., on Sunday.
“When I hear people talking about the fast start, I feel like you’ve got to take a lot of different factors into the equation,” Earnhardt says. “We’ve had good fortune. (Certain) scenarios have been working in our favor ... and they don’t always work in your favor. You’re not always gonna come out on the better end of those deals, but we have.”
It’s not like this is unexplored territory for the 10-time most popular driver. Last season’s full slate of top 15s through the first five races found him third in the standings. And in 2004 with Dale Earnhardt, Inc., he enjoyed his finest season to date, when he notched two wins in the first five events, though a 35th-place run in Las Vegas dropped the average finishing position to 10.4.
Earnhardt also scored the sole Daytona 500 victory of his career that season, and runs of fifth, first and 10th surrounded the Vegas dud. So technically, the start of that six-win season was his finest to date.
But you’ll excuse his legion of fans if they choose to ride the momentum 2013 has brought. And the fact that Earnhardt is the only driver in the series that has yet to see 11th-place (or worse) at the end of a long Sunday afternoon finds his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team feeling upbeat as the circuit embarks on a trek of 15 straight race weekends through mid-July.
“We’re feeling confident — the mood’s good,” Earnhardt says of his team. “We see where we need to improve. We feel like we’ve got pretty decent speed in the car in race trim.”
For a driver and team that once struggled to make the car better over the course of a race, the in-race improvement has been striking. In fact, that 4.4-place average finish is a full 15 positions better than where they’ve managed to qualify on average — a testament to the communication between driver and crew chief Steve Letarte.
“We’ve gotten pretty good at closing races, something I never really was good at for years, and now we’re doing it as good as anybody,” Earnhardt says. “(We’re) just riding the wave — just real happy with how things are going for our team.”
Still, qualifying further up the pylon may change those second- to seventh-place finishes into wins.
“We’d love to qualify better, to feel more dependable when we put the car in qualifying trim,” says Earnhardt.
It’s a sentiment Letarte echos, though he realizes that the team has put itself in position to win numerous times. And if they do it often enough, those wins will come.
“You can’t win from 15th; you can’t win from 10th, the sport’s too difficult,” Letarte says. “You have to run in the top 5 or top 7 to win races — and we’ve done that all season. And we think that’s the formula for success that will get us to Victory Lane throughout the year.”
That brings Earnhardt and crew to Martinsville, a quaint .526-mile, paperclip-shaped oval that’s as much of a throwback venue as one will find on a schedule saturated with 1.5-mile intermediate clones. It’s a racetrack that has treated Earnhardt well in the past — he has showings of seventh or better in four of his last five starts — though he has yet to earn the coveted Grandfather Clock trophy awarded to the winner.
At this rate, though, Earnhardt is happy to have gotten out of the gates quickly, knowing the points earned early are insurance for the potholes that speckle an arduous season, wrought with trial.
“It’s a long year,” he says. “You’re going to have some bad luck — nobody runs the whole season perfectly — but we’re just trying to get as many points as early as we can so when that bad luck comes it doesn’t hit us as hard.”