Does Dale Jr. have a leg up on Johnson for the 2014 haul?
MAR 06, 2014 5:02p ET
But NASCAR's most popular driver knows that winning his second Daytona 500 and following it up with a runner-up finish at Phoenix International Raceway last Sunday is no guarantee he'll stay ahead of Johnson as the marathon NASCAR season winds on.
There's no question, though, that Earnhardt is feeling good about where he's at right now, which is on top of the NASCAR Sprint Cup points.
"Your confidence brings a positive attitude with it," said Earnhardt prior to a four-hour test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Thursday. "We've been building that confidence, obviously, for several years, resulting in a really solid season last year, especially throughout the Chase. Starting off this year with a win and a second-place finish just continues to make us feel like what we're doing is working and what we're doing is heading in the right direction."
And nothing breeds success like success.
"When you get more confidence, you're more positive and relationships with yourself and your crew chief and among your crew members and what have you are better, easier when everything is working," said for Earnhardt. "So far, so good. It's a long year and we have to be aware of all the obstacles and challenges ahead, and continue to work hard and stay focused."
As far as catching Johnson, it's been a long haul. In Earnhardt's first six seasons at Hendrick, he won two races and finished in the top 10 in points only twice. During the same period, Johnson won 33 races and four of his six championships, never finishing worse than sixth in points.
But late last season, Earnhardt caught fire, posting three runner-up finishes and eight finishes of eighth or better in the final 10 races. Add in the start of this season and it's no wonder he's confident about where he and the No. 88 Hendrick team are.
"Before, we sort of (have) been all over the board, really," Earnhardt said Thursday. "I think in the last 10 races we've ran, we've been on par with Jimmie (Johnson). He's obviously been the lead horse in the organization for a long time in performance. I feel like in the last 10 races or so, we've been on par with him, if not a little bit better, in certain cases. Obviously, in the last few races we've been better, but just in results. You can't sleep on Jimmie; he'll get it going and won't be a problem."
Where Earnhardt is relative to the other Hendrick drivers now is the best it has been since he joined the team.
"I think in the last seven years we've been at the bottom, we've been the third, second, first, we've been all over," said Earnhardt. "More often we've been in the back half of the four cars. We haven't performed as well as our other three teammates throughout 2009 and 2010, and 2011 we started getting a little bit better."
Earnhardt knows his stiffest opposition might come right within the Hendrick camp.
"It's a very, very competitive group," Earnhardt said. "Kasey's (teammate Kasey Kahne) as fast as anybody. Jeff's (teammate Jeff Gordon) got four championships and tons of experience and wins races. They raise your game, it's good to have people pushing you and they definitely push me to be better as a driver, and I learn a lot from all three of them."