Strong Start for 'Junior'

D.Earnhardt Jr.

Earnhardt followed his second-place finish in Daytona with a fifth-place effort in Sunday's Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway. (Photo: Getty Images)

Dale Earnhardt Jr. followed his runner-up finish in the season-opening Daytona 500 with a fifth-place effort in Sunday’s Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver ran near the front of the field for much of the 316-lap race around the one-mile track before sliding back in the closing laps for the top five effort.  Earnhardt was frustrated, despite the outcome that left him second in the Sprint Cup Series point standings - eight behind teammate Jimmie Johnson.

Trouble on a late-race pit stop when Casey Mears cut a tire and boxed Earnhardt into his stall may have cost him a shot at winning in Phoenix for the third time in his career.

"I hate to be frustrated at Phoenix, but I think we are," he said.  "We had a good car and feel like we could have finished better than fifth, maybe won the race.  We just didn't get the breaks on pit road.  We got boxed in and then got picked on beating the No. 99 (race winner Carl Edwards) off pit road.

"Somebody was pulling into their stall in front of us.  I had to lift and give the spot to the '99.'  That was the race, in my opinion.  We almost had it won right there."

Despite several drivers complaining about the difficulty in passing with the new Gen-6 Sprint Cup racecar during its first Phoenix outing, Earnhardt said a combination of pit strategy and track position helped his cause.

"We used strategy to get up-front, on pit road, to get ourselves track position," he said.  "We had a pretty good car.  On that pit stop, the No. 99 (Edwards) got the lead.  I was on the inside of him on pit road and I think I could have beaten him.  But the No. 13 (Mears) was trying to get into his stall and I had to lift for that.  I knew right then that was my opportunity to win the race, right there.

"It’s difficult to pass with the big spoiler, but our car was good enough to actually run up on some guys and make some passes."

So it’s on to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for Earnhardt and the rest of the Sprint Cup Series.  Kicking off the year with a pair of top five finishes has given the No. 88 team a shot of confidence that even with Sunday’s frustration, has Earnhardt feeling pretty good.

"I was a little disappointed because I think we could have won," he said.  "You hate to give away points and I'd love to get to Victory Lane.  This is a good sign for us, though ... that we’ve improved this much at Phoenix.  Hopefully, it’s a sign that we're going to be all right for the rest of the season."

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