Season Review: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
By: Jeff Wackerlin - @JWackerlin Twitter and Instagram | MRN.com on December 2, 2013 | 8:15 A.M. EST
Earnhardt Jr. recorded 22 top-10s, two poles and an average finish of 12.6 in 2013. (Photo: Getty Images)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. made the Chase for the sixth time in his career in 2013 and put together his best season since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2008.
Although he failed to win a race this season, Earnhardt Jr. recorded a career-high 22 top-10 finishes and equaled his best finish under the Chase format (2004 and 2006), in fifth.
"Really happy to run as well as we have this season," Earnhardt Jr. said. "This has been one of the best years I've had, certainly the best year I've had working with Hendrick. Just want to give my team a lot of credit. Steve Letarte, my engineers, did just an amazing job providing these good cars every week."
In his third year with Latarte as crew chief, Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 88 team started out of the gate fast, posting five consecutive finishes of seventh or better. Earnhardt finished second in the season opener at Daytona International Speedway and then again at Auto Club Speedway in March to put him in the points lead.
This season the No. 88 team moved up a series-leading total of 68 positions in the final 10 percent of each race, including at Auto Club where Earnhardt Jr. was 13th in the running order with 20 to go.
"If you look at some of the statistics that we've done really well at, that's closing races out and passing a lot of cars in the last 20 or 10 percent of the race," Earnhardt Jr. said. "Two races really come to mind, and that's Bristol (spring) and California, with just a handful of laps to go, we're not in the top 10 in either one of those races, and Steve made some pit calls in the last 25 percent of those races that set us up to be able to make up a lot of ground at the end if everything went according to plan. I don't really know if that was his plan, but he surely makes it look good."
Earnhardt's points lead didn't last long after tough outings in the next two races at Martinsville Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway. His Texas finish was one of his worst of the season when running at the checkered flag, but it came after a mechanical issue that was diagnosed wrong and a series of miscues on pit road.
"I didn’t know it was a battery until we got down on pit road and I got to looking at the gauges and really understanding," Earnhardt Jr. said after his 29th-place finish at Texas. "At that point we had lost a couple of laps. I couldn’t control my speed on pit road because the motor was not running coming on. So we sped there and we came down pit road to serve the penalty but Steve (Letarte) wanted to get tires. You can’t get tires serving a penalty so we had to come back and then serve the penalty.”
Two engine issues at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May and Michigan International Speedway in June marked Earnhardt's worst finishes of the season. Highlighted by top-five runs in both Pocono races in the summer he never fell lower than seventh in the standings leading up to the regular season finale at Richmond International Raceway.
One year after having to sit-out two races in the Chase due to a concussion, Earnhardt recorded the fourth-best average finish (8.5) among all drivers in the last 10 races in 2013. Three of his runner-up finishes on the year came in that span and he ended with the best average finish (3.8) in the last five races.
"I'm really proud of my team," Earnhardt Jr. said. "They worked really hard in the Chase, and it really showed. If we're able to put together another good season and are fortunate enough to make the Chase next year, we'll be one they need to worry about."
Motor Racing Network continues our countdown to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Awards in Las Vegas with a look at the fourth-place finisher, Kyle Busch, on Tuesday, Dec. 3. MRN will broadcast the Awards on Dec. 6 starting at 8 p.m. (ET), with live streaming at MRN.com.