Dale Earnhardt Jr. is already thinking about the Chase and reflects on final lap of the Daytona 500

Jonathan Ferrey

Phoenix is just the second race of the season but Dale Earnhardt Jr. is already thinking about points and making the Chase for the Championship. And he believes his second-place finish in last week's Daytona 500 could have made it easier to make the playoffs, which begins in September.

Earnhardt, who finished second at Daytona last year en route to securing a Chase berth, explained that it's just easier to maintain a good points standing rather than having to dig himself out of a metaphorical hole like so many teams will have to do after Daytona.

Earnhardt hopes to have his team focusing on preparing cars for the Chase during the summer, rather than trying to make it into the field.

"That's a distraction that I'd rather not have to put the team through," Earnhardt said. "If we can put together a solid 10 races and get a good foundation of points together then we should be able to steadily maintain that throughout the rest of the regular season... Mentally, it's just easier and emotionally it's easier."

Earnhardt's looking at the big picture but he still wonders what could have been done to chase down Jimmie Johnson in the closing laps. Earnhardt pulled out from behind Danica Patrick coming down to the white flag but just didn't carry enough momentum to surge past Jimmie Johnson. But he says that he learned a lot in advance of the remaining three restrictor plate races at Daytona and Talladega.

"I should have went earlier to try to get to second sooner to have that lap or two that I needed to make a run on Jimmie," Earnhardt said. "But I was worried about getting freight-trained and going to the back like we had seen so many guys do during the race.

I was a little apprehensive and that's why the move didn't come sooner. You learn a lot and learned a few lessons there that I can take and try to utilize at Talladega. But other than that, it's more about trying to get those points. They are really important."

That leads Earnhardt into this weekend's Sprint Cup Series race at Phoenix. A new car and new Goodyear tire compound has several teams not knowing what to expect - and that includes Earnhardt's. Earnhardt thinks Phoenix, which was repaved and reconfigured in 2011, will provide better racing once the surface ages. Until then, it carries more questions than answers.

"A lot of tracks have been repaved and they are just not widening out right off the bat," Earnhardt said. "When you put down a new surface it's pretty single-file for a couple years. It's at least three or four races before we really start moving up the race track and changing lanes and running different grooves."

Until then, it's hard to predict the kind of racing teams will face on Sunday.

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