NASCAR Las Vegas 2014: Earnhardt’s strong start could be challenged this weekend

Jonathan Ferrey

Dale Jr. heads to Las Vegas looking to hit it big, but it’s Kevin Harvick who appears to be the driver to beat Sunday.

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Through two events Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been nearly perfect. He began by winning the Daytona 500 followed with a runner-up finish last week at Phoenix, and he heads into Sunday's race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway holding a six-point lead.

The early success carried over from last season where in a nine-race stretch Earnhardt finished second three times, third and fourth once and posted a 5.5 average finish. Corresponding with the upswing in performance is the confidence of NASCAR's most popular driver.

"Starting off this year with a win and a second-place finish just continues to make us feel like what we're doing is working and what we're doing is heading in the right direction," Earnhardt said Thursday. "When you get more confidence you're more positive and relationships with yourself and your crew chief and among your crew members."

With success comes the pressure to sustain. But being the son of a seven-time Cup champion, Earnhardt has faced a raised standard throughout his career. He entered the sport in 2000 as a highly touted rookie and quickly won twice in his 11 starts of that year. What came next was a pattern of inconsistency that became Earnhardt's trademark. One good season would be followed by a subpar campaign, and rarely was their prolonged productivity.

In recent years this has changed. Paired with crew chief Steve Letarte in 2011, Earnhardt has thrived -- though the trips to Victory Lane are less frequent than either would like -- and at various points in the previous two years he has been atop the championship standings at least once. And although Letarte is leaving at the end of the year to become an analyst for NBC Sports, the union remains strong.

"When stuff is not right Steve does a nice job of ‘hey this sucked, let's move on and do something different,'" said Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt's teammate. "That has worked very well for him and has kept his confidence high.

"I can say that throughout all of last year and even into part of the season the year before when things really started turning around for him that success leads to confidence. That circle started and they have been building ever since and we have all seen it in his stats and performance. This year he is off to an awesome start."

The strong start exhibited by the No. 88 team could be challenged this weekend.

During an open test held at the 1.5-mile track Thursday, Hendrick Motorsports teammates struggled to find speed. The fastest time posted was by Johnson (18th overall) followed by Earnhardt (19th), then Kasey Kahne (21st) and Jeff Gordon (28th).

It appears for the second straight week Earnhardt will be chasing Kevin Harvick, who dominated winning at Phoenix. Harvick paced Thursday practice (190.488 mph), and in his first season with Stewart-Haas Racing and working with crew chief Rodney Childers, has asserted himself a championship contender.

"I believe that he is really in a program where he can shine with the opportunity with Rodney to excel even more," Earnhardt said. "They will be extremely challenging. I think that the Phoenix race was just a sign of more to come. They are going to be tough and deservingly so."

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