Out of the spotlight, Earnhardt off to best start of his career

Todd Warshaw

With everything that has gone on in NASCAR this season, it's easy to overlook that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is off to the best start of his career and atop the Sprint Cup Series standings.

It is hard to do anything quietly when you've been voted the sport's most popular driver 10 consecutive years.

However, as the 2013 season has unfolded Dale Earnhardt Jr. has uncharacteristically taken a backseat to the abundance of stories which have dominated the headlines.

Whether it was Danica Patrick making history in the Daytona 500, the debut of the Gen-6 car or Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin igniting NASCAR's newest rivalry, all have trumped Earnhardt's ascension to the top of the Sprint Cup Series standings.

But with consistency unmatched by anyone else -- he's the only driver to post top 10s in every race -- Earnhardt has stealthily gotten off to the best start of his career.

One reason he hasn't captured the attention he otherwise normally would is because Earnhardt has yet to visit Victory Lane -- an all-too-common theme for him with just one win in his previous 147 starts.

Yet Earnhardt doesn't perceive the lack of interest as a bad thing.

"I feel like it gives us the opportunity to keep focusing on what we need to do," Earnhardt said in a Tuesday teleconference. "We've finished well, but I think that there's a lot of areas that we can improve, and we get to focus on that sort of being out of the scope and out of the spotlight. We can pay more attention to how do we get better as a team."

In a way, each race this season is a microcosm of the formula Earnhardt has used to quietly move 12 points ahead of second-place Brad Keselowski.

Not once has Earnhardt started a race better than 12th and the template the No. 88 team has used when the green flag waves is to bide their time, often riding in the mid-teens in the early portions of the race.

A glance at the running order in the first 50 laps or so and you would think Earnhardt is going to be in for a long afternoon.

But that hasn't been the case.

Efficiently -- and silently -- Earnhardt slowly maneuvers his way into the top 10 and before you know it, there he is near the front. At Daytona and later at Fontana, it was almost like a wand had been waved and as the laps clicked down to single digits -- boom -- the 88 car is in the runner-up position and posting another result in the top 10.

Not surprisingly, Earnhardt directs all the credit to his team -- in particular crew chief Steve Letarte, whose deft strategy and sound adjustments have allowed his driver to get better and not worse as the race reaches its conclusion.

This wasn't always the case in years past with Earnhardt.

Too frequently in his first few seasons with Hendrick Motorsports, before Letarte was named his crew chief, Earnhardt was at his strongest in the beginning of the race and not the end. His downfall often centered on poor communication that saw him slide back through the field and gave the impression that his team was in disarray rather than a group operating from the same playbook.

"If you look at some of the statistics that we've done really well at, that's closing races out and passing a lot of cars in the last 20 or 10 percent of the race," Earnhardt said.

Bristol and Fontana are the two races that stand out to Earnhardt where Letarte specifically was at his best.

"With just a handful of laps to go, we're not in the top 10 in either one of those races," Earnhardt said. "And Steve made some pit calls in the last 25 percent of those races that set us up to be able to make up a lot of ground at the end if everything went according to plan.

"I don't really know if that was his plan, but he surely makes it look good."

Because of the strong start and the consistency he's exhibited, it's easy to declare Earnhardt a championship contender.

But with 21 races remaining before the lineup for the Chase is set, it would be premature to put that label on Earnhardt however tempting it may be.

With just one victory since 2009 and having not won more than a single race in a season since 2004, making more trips to Victory Lane is the glaring weakness of the No. 88 team.

No one understands this better than Earnhardt, who knows as well as anyone that to win a title a driver has to lead laps and win races.

"We're not winning races, and I don't expect to get much attention until we can win races," he said.

"Hopefully we can win some races, though, and change that."

If Earnhardt can do just that, it will be him, and no one else, that will be the story of 2013. For now, though, it's a spotlight he must share as he quietly goes about his business.

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