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Earnhardt Jr. wants more than third in points

November 09, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

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No. 88 driver nears career-best points finish, but title remains prime focus

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AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Over the final two weekend of this season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has an outside chance at matching his best-ever points finish in NASCAR's premier series.

Not that he's given much thought to it.

"Not really," Earnhardt said at Phoenix International Raceway. "I circle that championship, that's what we want to get. It (would be) nice to equal our career best, but it's still a little disappointing considering how good our team is."

NASCAR's most popular driver has quietly been on a roll since blowing an engine in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup opener eight weeks ago at Chicagoland Speedway. Although that 35th-place result effectively doomed his championship hopes, Earnhardt has rebounded thanks in part to three runner-up finishes in the playoff, the most recent last weekend at Texas.

Over that same span, he's risen from 13th to fifth in points, and has a shot at matching his best-ever finish at the Sprint Cup level -- third, which he last managed in 2003 during the heyday of Dale Earnhardt Inc. Earnhardt is 22 points behind third-place Kevin Harvick with races at Phoenix and Homestead-Miami Speedway remaining on the schedule. Fourth-place Kyle Busch is 10 ahead, giving Earnhardt a shot at his best points finish in a decade.

"I haven't really looked at the numbers to know how far back we are," said Earnhardt, who drew an early spot in qualifying and will start 11th Sunday. "We just give it all we can each week, and see what we can accomplish. We've already come a lot farther than I thought we would after Chicago. Real proud of the team and how they've hung in there, and they've done their best work here in the last six weeks or so."

Take the engine failure at Chicago out of the equation, and Earnhardt's average finish in the remaining Chase races is 6.1, a 15th-place result at Charlotte being his only bobble over that span. His surge comes as Jimmie Johnson, his stablemate in the 48/88 shop at Hendrick Motorsports, has moved into the Chase lead in search of his sixth championship at the sport's top level.

While the vehicles of Earnhardt and Johnson aren't identical -- "The setups are really different, so you’ve probably got to drive them a little differently," Earnhardt said -- the driver of the No. 88 car believes his program benefits from his teammate's success. Earnhardt made the Chase this season for the third consecutive year, and a fifth-place finish in points would match his best since 2006.

"I want the best for the company I'm working for, because indirectly it will assist our team," said Earnhardt, who has won twice at Phoenix, most recently in 2004. "When Jimmie or any of the guys are running well, it's good for us. Indirectly, it affects us down the line. I focus on, how can I improve performance for my team, and how can our team improve? And when our company's successful, that’s going to help us."

That Hendrick connection is why Earnhardt is clearly in Johnson's corner during the final weeks of this Chase, which the five-time champion leads by seven points over Joe Gibbs Racing driver Matt Kenseth. Earnhardt and Kenseth are good friends dating back to their days dueling for titles on what is now the Nationwide Series. Although his support is with Johnson, Earnhardt wouldn’t mind reprising those battles one day at the sport's highest level.

"Me and Matt are real good friends, and he's going to have his share of opportunities along with this year," Earnhardt said. "He's going to have his opportunities as long as he sticks with Joe. I hope we can be battling him for those down the line in the future."

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