Even as Jimmie Johnson celebrates his sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, plans are being laid to deny him that title in 2014. Johnson’s own teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr., says he is ready to ascend to the top of the mountain next season and supplant the Lowe’s Chevrolet driver in the auto racing equivalent of a bloodless coup.
“I’m really happy to run as well as we have this season,” said NASCAR’s perennial most popular driver, hot off a third-place finish that saw him lead 28 laps in Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “This has been one of the best years I've had… (and I’m) hoping next year we continue that trend and get a shot at winning a championship.
“I think we can do it.”
That’s bold talk for a driver who has never finished better than fifth in the season-long standings and went without a victory this season, extending his personal winless streak to 54 races. But on closer inspection, here is evidence to support Earnhardt’s optimism.
His 22 Top-10 finishes this season were a career-best, and the Hendrick Motorsports driver led at least one lap in eight of the 10 Chase races this season. He posted Top-5 finishes in four of this season’s final five races, and with an average Chase finish of 8.5, displayed with the kind of consistency that defines title contenders.
Earnhardt knows, however, where his championship drive fell short.
“We didn't win enough races in the regular season,” he stated. “We didn't win any, (and) that was the difference. When we started the Chase, we were already in the hole to Matt. It's too competitive.”
Earnhardt refused to blame a blown engine at Chicagoland Speedway in September for his failure to contend for the title, despite a 35th-place finish that effectively ended his championship hopes.
“It probably wouldn't have made a big difference,” he said. “We got behind in the regular season by not winning enough; not doing enough to get bonus points. Those points are so important. If you put a good (Chase) together and add those bonus points on top of it, man, you're going to be hard to beat.
“(This is) certainly the best year I've had working with Hendrick Motorsports,” admitted Earnhardt Sunday. “Steve Letarte and my engineers did just an amazing job providing these good cars every week. Ever since I started working with Steve, I haven't wanted the years to end. We seem to get better as the season goes (and I) would love to go to another race next week.”
Team owner Rick Hendrick said he see Earnhardt and the No. 88 Chevrolet team closing the gap on their shop mate, Johnson.
“You can't run in the Top-10 until you run 15th,” he said. “You can't run in the Top-5 until you've run in the Top-10. “He's run so well… consistently in the Top-5. His confidence is at an all-time high. He and Stevie are really clicking.
“You can see it in his step,” said Hendrick. “He told me tonight that he can't wait to go to Daytona. I think he's got a lot of wins (in him). I think he's going to be a threat for the championship next year.”