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Dale Earnhardt Jr. 2013 preview

January 14, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Dale Earnhardt Jr. 2013 preview
Will confidence turn into a championship?

For Dale Earnhardt Jr., this year is all about confidence -- carrying it over from a season that returned him to championship contention, building it over the first 10 races of this year, and using it as a springboard toward another run at the Sprint Cup championship.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

No. 88 National Guard/Diet Mountain Dew Chevrolet

2012 rank

12th

Team

Hendrick Motorsports

Crew chief

Steve Letarte

Biggest change for 2013 is...

Other than a little shuffling on the sponsor side, none. His team returns essentially intact.

Watch out for...

The gaps in consistency that took Earnhardt out of the championship mix last season before his concussions made it official. The No. 88 team started strong, but couldn’t improve as other teams did, and was at its lowest as the Chase approached. For a driver who doesn’t win many races, every week is crucial.

Will win the title if...

Earnhardt thrives in the new Sprint Cup vehicle, which he says reminds him of the Car of Tomorrow’s predecessor, and suddenly it feels like 2004 all over again. The last two years have proven that he can points race. If he starts getting victories in bunches, watch out.

2012 was...

Watch the video below for Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s 2012 season in review.

NASCAR’s most popular driver made huge strides in 2012, snapping a 143-race winless streak, ranking among the point leaders for much of the regular season, and making the Chase for a second consecutive year. The effects of two concussions took him out of the title hunt, but the season as a whole laid the groundwork for what could be a more serious challenge in 2013.

VIDEO: Dale Earnhardt Jr. season in review

He likes the way he ran much of last season. He likes the way the new Sprint Cup cars drive. He likes the momentum he’s built with crew chief Steve Letarte. Now, it’s time to see if all those good feelings translate into results on the race track.

“I feel like I can go into (this) year confident that we’re going to put good cars on the track, and I’m going to like the way they drive and I’m going to enjoy the races that we have,” Earnhardt said. “I think the first 10 races of the season are the most important in terms of making the Chase, putting down a good foundation of points. … It’s nice to get up there and get up front early and stay there. So that’s our outlook, and I think we’re in (a) good position.”

He has reason to feel optimistic, particularly after ranking in the top three for 19 weeks last season. Even so, Letarte sees ample room for improvement, saying the No. 88 was the dominant car for only two races last year, the skid-snapper at Michigan and one at Pocono, and leveled off late in the year when other teams improved. The difference is simple: Earnhardt simply needs to be faster more often.

“Last year we found some good speed, and then as the field caught up, we couldn’t distance ourselves from the group as fast as we needed to in the second half of the year,” Letarte said. “… It’s simple, but the faster you go, the easier the races are to call, the less pressure there is on drivers on the restarts, the less pressure there is on the pit crew. Even as much today as it takes to run well in NASCAR in the Sprint Cup Series, it comes down to lap times. If you’re a faster car, so much opens up. It takes pressure off everybody and you find yourself making less mistakes.”

Earnhardt would also like to get better in qualifying, which he felt cost him at times last year. But the No. 88 program has progressed to the point where improvement is targeted not for types of tracks, but individual venues like Texas and the road courses.

“We don’t have the big chunks to gain like we did before,” Earnhardt said.

Now, small improvements may mean a lot, which is why Earnhardt is eager to test as much as he can, and build some more confidence heading into Speedweeks.

“We can’t let anybody get a head start on us,” he said. “We need to go into Daytona and then Phoenix and Vegas feeling real confident about the start of our year, because the first 10 races really shape your chances are of making the Chase.”

See the full schedule of our top 12 Sprint Cup Series drivers and read more below:

12. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

11. Martin Truex Jr.

10. Jeff Gordon

9. Tony Stewart

8. Kevin Harvick

7. Matt Kenseth

6. Denny Hamlin

5. Greg Biffle

4. Kasey Kahne

3. Jimmie Johnson

2. Clint Bowyer

1. Brad Keselowski