AVONDALE, Ariz. This was what you call validating the win.
Superspeedway Daytona and short track Phoenix International Raceway serve as dramatic contrasts between weeks one and two of the Sprint Cup series. To win one and challenge for the other suggests Dale Earnhardt Jr. is going to be fast all over the place.
Earnhardt won at Daytona and finished second Sunday in Phoenix. Though Sunday’s winner, Kevin Harvick, clearly had Earnhardt beaten on restarts, the No. 88 team is bursting with momentum heading to the next race in Las Vegas.
“Those guys (Harvick’s No. 4, Jimmie John’s Chevrolet) were two-tenths better than everybody all weekend in practice. To be able to run with them all day was a big confidence-booster for us,” Earnhardt said.
“I’d love to have won the race, a little disappointed to come that close, but our team is doing so well. Everybody’s mood and morale is really high.”
Why wouldn’t it be? Under the new scoring system – greater emphasis on victories, less on points – winning at Daytona all guarantees a spot for Earnhardt in the season-ending Chase. That essentially means he’s playing the rest of the season with house money, able to take gambles he might not otherwise.
Example: Earnhardt was close on having enough fuel to finish Sunday. His pit crew told him to go for it – conserve what he could under caution, but let it all out under green.
Earnhardt said that’s probably the advice he would have gotten regardless, but there’s a different sort of conviction with a big race already won.
“It wasn’t as nerve-wracking,” Earnhardt said. “You’re (normally) biting your fingernails when he says you’re two laps short (on fuel). When he said, ‘If we run out, we run out,’ you can gamble with less” trepidation.
Earnhardt said it was clear Harvick had that much better a car Sunday. The cautions gave him windows to catch and pass, but each yellow flag changed track conditions, differently for each driver. As the tires cooled, you could never quite anticipate how the car would react to more green-flag racing.
At times finishing second has been cause for Earnhardt to feel frustration. This time it set a more optimistic tone for the rest of the season.
“If we run second enough, we can at least trip into one or two” more victories, Earnhardt said. “I feel like we’re really coming around the corner.”