HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn’t win this season, but he can’t wait for next year based on how he ran in the Chase.
Earnhardt ended the NASCAR Sprint Cup season with a third-place finish Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He places fifth in the points – his best finish since 2006.
Earnhardt was on pace for his first win since June 2012 at Michigan. He led the Ford EcoBoost 400 until race winner Denny Hamlin passed him with 24 laps to go. Earnhardt couldn’t keep up and lost second to Matt Kenseth.
“(Hamlin) was just close enough jn front of us to dirty the air right against the fence,’’ Earnhardt said. “Our car really didn’t have the right rear hooked up … like the run before. I just couldn’t maximize myself off the corner. I looked to make it on the bottom, but we just didn’t have a good enough car on the bottom. We keep working, we’re going to get a few.
“I really wanted to win there and give to them. Just couldn’t get it done.’’
He finished the season with his third consecutive top-five result – his best streak of the season. Earnhardt’s result also is his 22nd top-10 finish, topping his previous best set in 2003 and ’04.His 10 top-five finishes matched last season’s total.
“Really happy to run as well as we have this season,’’ Earnhardt said. “This has been one of the best years I’ve had, certainly the best year I’ve had working with Hendrick (Motorsports). Just want to give my team a lot of credit. (Crew chief) Steve Letarte, my engineers, did just an amazing job providing these good cars every week.’’
It was during the Chase that Earnhardt ran his best.
He scored eight top-10 finishes in the final 10 races. His only blemishes were a 35th-place finish in the Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway when he blew an engine and a 15th-place finish at Charlotte.
When asked how different his Chase might have been without the blown engine, Earnhardt, instead, looked back to a season without a win.
“We didn’t win enough enough races in the regular season, we didn’t win any,’’ he said. “That was the difference When we started the Chase we were already in the hole to Matt. It’s too competitive. Just like the end of this race. We just got behind in the regular season, not winning enough, not doing enough to get bonus points and those guys did. Points are so important. If you put 10 good races and add those bonus points on top of that, you’re going to be hard to beat.’’
With as well as he ran in the Chase, might Earnhardt be among the favorites for next year’s title?
“They’ve said it before, but we ain’t never put anything like this together,’’ he said on pit road. “These last nine races have been something else. Yeah, they can say that and feel good about it.’’