Dale Earnhardt Jr. had perhaps his most consistent season ever in 2012, posting top-10 finishes on a seemingly weekly basis.
But as well as Earnhardt Jr. performed in the point standings (at least in the regular season) his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team wasn't a threat to win races all that often.
Earnhardt Jr. led more than 10 laps in just eight of the 34 races he ran and ranked 11th overall in laps led (358) – a far cry from teammate Jimmie Johnson, who was No. 1 in the series with 1,744 laps led.
And though Earnhardt Jr. had 20 top-10 finishes, only 10 of those were top-fives. Drivers who finished well in the points had a greater percentage of high finishes among their top-10s.
So what must Earnhardt Jr. and the 88 team do in order to become a top-five car every week?
Simple, crew chief Steve Letarte said Wednesday: Find more speed.
"Every season you race 36 times, and of those 36 times (this season), I think there were two races where we were the dominant car," Letarte said during a break in testing at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "We won one of them (Michigan). On the first Pocono, I think we had the dominant car; we didn't win. Of those 34 that are left, there were probably four or five we put ourselves in position (to win) on pit strategy.
"To become a dominant team, you need to have enough speed that you have the dominant car in four or five races and then you put yourself in position on another six or seven. It's really just math; it comes down to speed."
So by Letarte's formula, the 88 team needed two or three more races in which it had the dominant car and two or three more races where it had good position thanks to pit strategy.
Letarte said the team had good pit stops and sound strategy throughout the season ("Our pit strategy was as good as anybody's from time to time," he said), but the 88 car needed "more speed to overcome adversity."
Earnhardt Jr. had that speed in the middle of the summer – it was reflected in the results when he reeled off top-15 finishes in 18 of the first 20 races – but other teams gained ground.
"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 – and I think that's kind of what you saw on the racetrack," Letarte said.
Earnhardt Jr. did not have a top-five finish in his final 11 races of the season.
Much depends on how things go with the new 2013 car, but Letarte said the formula for next season remains simple: Find more speed, and everything else falls into place.
"The faster you go, the easier the race is to call, the less pressure there is on the driver on the restarts, the less pressure there is on the pit crew," he said. "Even as much as it takes today to run well in NASCAR and the Sprint Cup Series, it comes down to lap times.
"If you're a faster car, so much opens up and it takes so much pressure off of everybody. You find yourself making less mistakes than trying to overcome a slower car."