With just two races remaining in the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, it is no surprise that Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth, the two drivers ranked first and second in the standings, are receiving the bulk of the media attention. But there is another driver that, almost very quietly, has put together a recent run of strong finishes.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has finished inside the top 10 in seven of the last eight races, and three times in the last six events, he has ended the day in the runner-up position.
Earnhardt sits fifth in the championship standings, and while not mathematically eliminated from winning the series title this year, it is more than a long shot at this point.
While the 2013 championship may be out of his reach, Earnhardt's recent stretch of good races is reason for optimism going into the 2014 season.
It is no secret that since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, Earnhardt's results have been below expectations. Now in his sixth full-time year with the organization, he has won just two races and has never finished higher than seventh in the standings.
The immediate future looks bright for the second-generation star, however. Other than the lack of wins, Earnhardt is putting up some of the best statistics in his six-year tenure driving for Rick Hendrick.
With two races left in the season, his two pole wins are a personal best with the team, while his 20 top-10 finishes tie his previous best for a season, which he set one year ago.
Earnhardt is also having his best Chase performance since 2004, the first year of the Sprint Cup playoffs.
Following an engine failure in the first race of the playoffs at Chicago that relegated him to a 35th-place finish, Earnhardt has posted results of sixth, second, eighth, 15th, second, eighth and second.
The 270 points that Earnhardt scored over the last seven races are the second-most in the series over that span, behind only the 290 points obtained by Johnson, the current points leader.
Will Earnhardt finally win that elusive first series title in 2014, or will he even be a contender for it? That is an impossible question to answer, but the late-season surge that he is on right now is a promising sign.
No one has ever questioned his talent, and there is no denying that Hendrick Motorsports is one of the top teams in the sport. It finally has the look that all the pieces are coming together for Earnhardt, and there is no reason to go into next season thinking he cannot win the title.
The biggest key to his success will be finding Victory Lane. His lack of wins is the one thing that has plagued him more than anything over the last six years, and it is the one thing he must remedy to become a serious contender.
As the sport's most popular driver, there are millions of fans that hope every year that Earnhardt can somehow find a way to earn a series championship. If the end of the 2013 season is any indication of things to come, those fans may not have to wait much longer.
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