The frustration evident in Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s face after Sunday’s Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was proof of just how far the third-generation racer and his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team have come in the last year.
From 2007, his last year at Dale Earnhardt Inc., through six seasons at Hendrick Motorsports, Earnhardt won just two of 250 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points races he entered. But after scoring an emotional victory in the Daytona 500 two weeks ago, Earnhardt was on the verge of winning his second race of 2014 when his engine sputtered on the backstretch of the final lap at LVMS, allowing Brad Keselowski to drive past him for the victory, while Earnhardt finished second.
It was Earnhardt’s sixth consecutive top-five finish dating back to last year and his third consecutive top-two finish this season, something only four other drivers have ever done. For that matter, it was the fourth race in a row in which Earnhardt has finished ahead of the driver he shares a garage with, six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup championship winner Jimmie Johnson.
But none of that mattered.
Earnhardt wanted to win and he didn’t, and after the race he was clearly ticked off that he came up maybe half a gallon of fuel too short. For all the critics who during the lean years scoffed that Earnhardt didn’t want to win badly enough, his face told a very different story. He wants to win, alright. And now he expects to win, too.
It’s been a long, difficult journey for Earnhardt, crew chief Steve Letarte and the rest of the team, but they are finally where they want to be.
"When we first got together we’d run our guts out to run in the top 15," said Earnhardt. "Then the next year we’d run our guts out to run in the top 10, and you wondered when you’d get up to fifth and start running in the top five regularly. We started doing that finally last year, and so our team just keeps stepping up this ladder. It just makes total sense to me how that process has went, having lived it and having seen the progression."
Three weeks into the long season is way too early to draw definitive conclusions about how the remainder of the year will go, but one victory, two runner-up finishes and an average finish of 1.67 has Earnhardt optimistic.
"The sky’s the limit for us," said the Sprint Cup points leader. "And if we are smart and keep our composure and don’t get foolish and don’t get too proud of ourselves, just keep it in perspective, we’ve got a great opportunity this year to be this competitive every week."