Dale Earnhardt Jr. aims for the top
March 06, 2014, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com
LAS VEGAS -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. said his No. 88 team has run as well as that of teammate Jimmie Johnson, but he doesn't appear ready to stake his claim to being the best under the Hendrick Motorsports banner.
"I think the last 10 races we've ran, we've been on par with Jimmie," Earnhardt Jr., 39, said of the six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion. "He's obviously been the lead horse in the organization for a long time in performance.
"I feel like in the last 10 races or so we've been on par with him if not a little bit better; obviously in the last 10 races or so we've been better, but just in results."
For the bulk of his Cup career, which began in earnest in 2002, Johnson has not only been the barometer by which Hendrick teams are measured, but by how all teams in the series are gauged.
In addition to his six championships, Johnson has posted multiple wins for 12 consecutive seasons, including a career-best 10 in 2007.
Earnhardt Jr., who joined the Hendrick organization in 2008, by his own admission has "sort of been all over the board, really."
"I think in the last seven years we've been at the bottom, we've been the third, second, first. We've been all over," he said Thursday before a four-hour test session for Cup teams at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
"More often we've been in the back half of the four cars (at HMS). We haven't performed as well as our other three teammates throughout 2009 and 2010, and 2011 we started getting a little bit better."
A strong finish to the 2013 season left Earnhardt Jr. fifth in points -- his best showing with the team and his best overall since 2006 when he also finished fifth while driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc., the organization founded by his father.
A furious start to the 2014 season has seen him win once (he captured his second career Daytona 500 title) and finish second a week later at Phoenix International Raceway.
The Daytona 500 victory virtually assures him a spot in this year’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup while the combined early-season results send him into this weekend’s Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas with the points lead.
Johnson, fifth and sixth in the opening two races, is fifth in the standings while teammates Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne sit third and 18th, respectively.
"You can't sleep on Jimmie," Earnhardt Jr. warned. "He'll get it going."
For Vegas, Dale Jr. will have spotter TJ Majors back this weekend after a one-race absence. Until Majors returns Saturday, Earnhardt will have some help from Regan Smith and former Cup champion Bill Elliott.
Much was expected when he made the move to Hendrick, yet it's been a difficult stretch for the sport's most popular driver. He went through two crew chiefs -- cousin Tony Eury Jr. and Lance McGrew -- before finally being paired with current crew chief Steve Letarte.
Wins have been rare -- before this year’s 500 victory Earnhardt had only two victories with Hendrick -- and consistency had been an issue. That no longer appears to be the case.
"It's a very, very competitive group (at HMS)," Earnhardt Jr. said. "Kasey's as fast as anybody. Jeff’s got four championships and tons of experience, and (he) wins races.
"They raise your game; it's good to have people pushing you and they definitely push me to be better as a driver and I learn a lot from all three of them."
It's been a busy couple of weeks for Earnhardt Jr., who said he hasn't been home since winning at Daytona nearly two weeks ago. He's joined the social media platform Twitter, taken a week-long media tour as part of his Daytona victory. On Wednesday night in Las Vegas, he took part in a sponsor event for Mountain Dew to unveil a new Kickstart paint scheme on his No. 88 Chevrolet.
"Everything seems to be (moving) in a positive direction right now," he said, "so (we're) just having fun with that. The fans are really enjoying it. ... I think that drives us and motivates us when people are happy with how you are doing and want to see you do well, and want to continue to see you do well.
" ... I'm not working to get more popularity, I'm just trying to go win races and trying to have fun doing it."