"I feel like we're coming around the corner, peaking at the right time this season to try to run for the championship." - Dale Earnhardt Jr.
AVONDALE, Ariz. – As a predictor of things to come, the Daytona 500 is about as accurate as a chimp picking stocks by throwing darts at a copy of the Wall Street Journal.
How many times have you heard it? "The real racing season starts at Phoenix."
Sure, Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Feb. 23 Daytona 500, and the motorsports community rejoiced. But a win on a high-banked restrictor-plate track doesn’t guarantee success at the open-motor races that follow the season opener.
As many times as drivers have triumphed at Daytona, only to fall flat at Phoenix—or wherever the second race of the season might have been—one had to wonder whether Earnhardt’s success in NASCAR’s biggest race would carry over into the Sonoran desert.
Yes, there was reason to believe Earnhardt was on a roll. The way he finished the 2013 season, steam-rolling though the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup with newfound confidence, gave credence to the notion that the collaboration with crew chief Steve Letarte was starting to pay real dividends.
Still, those who follow the sport had to wonder what would happen by the time Earnhardt got to Phoenix.
So did Earnhardt.
"What did people learn during the off season? Who was going to stand out like the 4 car (Harvick) did today and all weekend?"
Earnhardt liked the answer he got in Sunday’s race.
"Seems like we aren't behind," he said. "We aren't where the 4 car is, but we're definitely close. Hopefully, we can learn what we need to learn rapidly in the next several weeks, so we can get up to par and win some races.
"There's a couple teams out there that are behind, not onto the new package and new rules. I'm glad that we're doing pretty well. The performance is there for us. Hopefully, we can maintain it. We go to a completely different track at Vegas (Mar. 9), but we have a whole day Thursday to figure it out (in pre-race testing). It will be good to have that track time."
Earnhardt also will go to Las Vegas Motor Speedway with a sense of freedom, a luxury he and Letarte exercised Sunday at Phoenix. With the victory at Daytona already in the books, and a berth in the Chase all but guaranteed, Earnhardt can afford to gamble.
And on Sunday, gamble he did.
Letarte, in his last season as a crew chief before moving to the TV booth, opted to play the fuel mileage game after Earnhardt’s final pit stop.
His brief explanation to his driver told the story.
"If it runs out, that’s what we’re here to do—we’re here to win," Letarte told Earnhardt, who concurred.
"We probably would have went with the same strategy as we had today, as far as stretching our fuel mileage," Earnhardt said after the race. "We were stretching it thin. We would have went with the same strategy regardless of the situation, but it wouldn't have been as nerve wracking. It wasn't as nerve wracking today.
"Normally, you're just biting your fingernails when (Letarte) says, ‘We're two laps short; we have to find two laps.’ The yellows are coming out, you think you're saving, but you don't know how much. Today, if we run out, we run out--no big deal. We can gamble with a better conscience."
And he can gamble secure in the knowledge that victories are the only things that matter from Las Vegas through the 26th race of the season at Richmond. Earnhardt believes that, if he runs up front consistently enough, the wins will come, each worth three points in the first elimination round of the Chase.
"If we run second enough, we're bound to at least trip into one or two," Earnhardt said. "We ran second quite a few races in the last 10 or so races we ran (four times in the last 10 races dating to last year). I feel really good.
"I feel like we're coming around the corner, peaking at the right time this season to try to run for the championship."
Reid Spencer / NASCAR Wire Service