There was no wiping the grin off the face of Dale Earnhardt Jr. Sunday night at Phoenix International Raceway. NASCAR’s most popular driver, fresh from his victory tour after winning the season opening Daytona 500, showed that his win at Daytona was no fluke.
After starting fifth Earnhardt moved his way forward and was in second by lap 90. Unlike years past when he faded late or suffered pit road issues that left him back in the field, Earnhardt maintained second for most of the 312 laps and finished the day in the runner-up spot, second to race winner Kevin Harvick.
“I would have loved to have won the race, am a little disappointed to have come that close,” Earnhardt said. “ But our team is performing so well. Got a lot of great chemistry and good communication going back and forth. Everybody's confidence is very high. Everybody's mood and morale is really high.”
Towards the end Earnhardt battled Penske Racing teammates Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski through a series of late race restarts. The final restart with nine laps to go, saw him and Keselowski battle it out side by side, It was something however that Earnhardt didn’t really think about; his focus was on the lead.
“Kevin's going to jump out there and get away from us,” Earnhardt said. “We just didn't have enough laps. For one, we didn't have enough racecar all day long. He'd just been faster. For whatever reason, that last run, we reeled him in a little bit. Cut it probably in half. We needed another 10 laps, but we didn't have 10 laps.”
It was his third finish inside the top five at Phoenix and his tenth top five finish in the last ten races dating back to last season.
“ Hopefully we can maintain that and not have any bad luck or make any mistakes,” Earnhardt said. “And continue to keep working towards winning more races.”
“If we run second enough,” he added with a smile, “We're bound to at least trip into one or two. We ran second quite a few races in the last 10 or so races we run. 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.”
Earnhardt remains cautiously optimistic though.
“It's hard to take away a lot from two races,” he said. “Such a long season, so many things can happen. So many teams can learn and progress and the competition gets tougher and tougher throughout the year as everybody starts seeing what is happening in the garage. Secrets don't last long.”
“We just got to work hard, harder than everybody else,” he added. “We got a lot of tests lined up. We didn't test much in the off-season, didn't want to burn ourselves out before the season started. That's going to help us, I think, really learn a lot more. We're already relatively competitive now. “