Strong season has Dale Earnhardt Jr. thinking championship

Todd Warshaw

After his best season in years, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is excited for 2014 and feels he can contend for the championship.

The 2013 NASCAR season may be complete, but if there is a driver who wouldn't mind the season extended a couple of weeks it would be Dale Earnhardt Jr.

His third-place finish Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway was his fifth consecutive result of eighth or better and his eighth top-10 overall in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. He finished ranked fifth in the standings, which is tied for the second-best mark of his career and his best since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, and on the year, set career-highs for top-10s (22).

"This has been one of the best years I've had ... Hoping next year we continue that trend and that trajectory and get a shot at winning a championship. I think we can do it."-Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The only thing Earnhardt didn't do this season was win, which he was quick to mention following Sunday's Ford EcoBoost 400.

"We didn't win enough races in the regular season -- we didn't win any," Earnhardt said. "That was the difference. We just got behind in the regular season not winning enough, not doing enough to get bonus points. Those guys did. Those points are so important. If you put a good 10 races together, add them bonus points on top of it, man, you're going to be hard to beat."

However, Earnhardt came close to breaking through on numerous occasions. He had five runner-up finishes on the year, and in the Chase his average finish was 8.5.

And were it not for an engine failure in the opening Chase race at Chicagoland Speedway, Earnhardt undoubtedly would have finished higher in the standings. All of which is why it's not surprising that Earnhardt is eagerly awaiting the start of the 2014 season.

"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.

"Hoping next year we continue that trend and that trajectory and get a shot at winning a championship. I think we can do it."

It also doesn't hurt that Earnhardt's 88 team shares a shop with Jimmie Johnson, who on Sunday claimed his sixth Cup Series championship, as the two use the same cars and motors.

Asked to explain the uptick in performance and why he's running better, Earnhardt said there was no one thing. He continually asks crew chief Steve Letarte and other team personnel what's changed with his cars, and is told nothing.

"I have the same feeling, like our cars are way faster," Earnhardt said. "I just think the 88 team has really stepped it up.

"Each year, we've gotten better. It's easy to forget about all this, but when me and Steve started working together, we were working our guts out to finish in the top 10. Each year it's kind of gotten easier to run a little better."

Earnhardt's improvement hasn't gone unnoticed. Rick Hendrick offered his driver high-praise post-race and is convinced big things lie ahead.

"His confidence is at an all-time high," Hendrick said. "He and Stevie are really clicking. You can see it in his step. I mean, he told me tonight that he can't wait to go to Daytona. I think he's got a lot of wins. I think he's going to be a threat for the championship next year."

2013 Sprint Cup Series standings
Rank Driver Points Behind Wins
1) Jimmie Johnson 2419 --- 6
2) Matt Kenseth 2400 -19 7
3) Kevin Harvick 2385 -34 4
4) Kyle Busch 2364 -55 4
5) Dale Earnhardt Jr. 2363 -56 0
6) Jeff Gordon 2337 -82 1
7) Clint Bowyer 2336 -83 0
8) Joey Logano 2323 -96 1
9) Greg Biffle 2321 -98 1
10) Kurt Busch 2309 -110 0
11) Ryan Newman 2286 -133 1
12) Kasey Kahne 2283 -136 2
13) Carl Edwards 2282 -137 2
14) Brad Keselowski 1041 -1378 1
15) Jamie McMurray 1007 -1412 1
16) Martin Truex Jr. 998 -1421 1
17) Paul Menard 949 -1470 0
18) Aric Almirola 913 -1506 0
19) Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 909 -1510 0
20) Jeff Burton 906 -1513 0
21) Juan Pablo Montoya 894 -1525 0
22) Marcos Ambrose 872 -1547 0
23) Denny Hamlin 753 -1666 1
24) Casey Mears 719 -1700 0
25) Mark Martin 649 -1770 0

More from SB Nation:

Complete coverage of the 2013 Sprint Cup Chase

Trevor Bayne diagnosed with MS, will continue racing

Jimmie Johnson takes control of championship

The good times, hard life and shocking death of Dick Trickle

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