2014 NASCAR standings: Dale Earnhardt Jr. finishes 3rd, takes series points lead

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

A third-place finish Sunday moved Dale Earnhardt Jr. back to the top of the Sprint Cup Series standings.

His day didn't end with him celebrating his first Martinsville Speedway victory, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. was still happy with his third-place finish.

The finish vaulted Earnhardt, who led 25 laps Sunday, back to the top of the Sprint Cup standings. He holds a nine-point lead on Matt Kenseth heading to next week's race at Texas Motor Speedway, a track where Earnhardt finished runner-up last fall.

Utilizing patience and discipline on a track that chews up tires, Earnhardt estimates he ran only half throttle for much of the STP 500. And if whenever he needed a reminder to not burn up his left-rear tire, crew chief Steve Letarte was a constant voice in his ear.

"He does a great job of keeping my mind focused on the tasks," Earnhardt said. "There's several different things you're doing in the car during a run, and you can easily get yourself carried away and race a guy and forget taking care of your car and taking care of your left-rear tire. It's easy to get swept up in the competition of things, and he's good at sort of cheerleading you along the way and running the show."

Those reminders are what Earnhardt is going to miss next year he said when Letarte leaves to become an analyst for NBC Sports at the end of the season.

"I'll be missing this next year," Earnhardt said. "There's nobody like him."

For now the pair is enjoying a very strong start to their last campaign together. In addition to leading the points, Earnhardt has four finishes of third or better in six races, including a Daytona 500 victory.

Earnhardt thought another victory was going to occur Sunday. The fabled half-mile has long been a track where he's wanted to conquer, and throughout the weekend Earnhardt spoke openly of his desire to secure a grandfather clock awarded to any driver who can win a Martinsville race.

But with just one caution in the final 83 laps and no pit stops, his No. 88 Chevrolet wasn't in the same class as Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson, who distanced themselves from Earnhardt in the closing stages.

"We'll get more opportunities to win more races," Earnhardt said. "I'm just frustrated I've been chasing the clock here for so long. Hopefully, one of these days it'll work out."

Sprint Cup standings

Place Driver Points Behind Wins
1 Dale Earnhardt, Jr. 227 1
2 Matt Kenseth 218 -9 0
3 Carl Edwards 217 -10 1
4 Jeff Gordon 216 -11 0
5 Jimmie Johnson 209 -18 0
6 Kyle Busch 189 -38 1
7 Brad Keselowski 188 -39 1
8 Joey Logano 187 -40 0
9 Austin Dillon 179 -48 0
10 Ryan Newman 174 -53 0
11 Paul Menard 168 -59 0
12 Denny Hamlin 165 -62 0
13 Brian Vickers 165 -62 0
14 Marcos Ambrose 162 -65 0
15 Tony Stewart 154 -73 0
16 A.J. Allmendinger 152 -75 0
17 Clint Bowyer 150 -77 0
18 Greg Biffle 149 -78 0
19 Kyle Larson 148 -79 0
20 Kurt Busch 146 -81 1
21 Casey Mears 146 -81 0
22 Kasey Kahne 145 -82 0
23 Jamie McMurray 140 -87 0
24 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 136 -91 0
25 Kevin Harvick 135 -92 1
26 Aric Almirola 132 -95 0
27 Justin Allgaier 109 -118 0
28 Martin Truex Jr. 105 -122 0
29 Danica Patrick 104 -123 0
30 Reed Sorenson 101 -126 0
31 Michael Annett 88 -139 0
32 Cole Whitt 86 -141 0
33 David Gilliland 85 -142 0
34 David Ragan 85 -142 0
35 Alex Bowman 73 -154 0
36 Josh Wise 59 -168 0
37 Ryan Truex 47 -180 0
38 Travis Kvapil 45 -182 0
39 Parker Kligerman 36 -191 0
40 Bobby Labonte 29 -198 0

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