The 2014 Sprint Cup season has been as close to perfect as possible for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 88 car thus far.
After winning the second Daytona 500 of his career in the first race of the season, Earnhardt went out in Phoenix and ran in the second spot for nearly the entire day before trying to make a run at Kevin Harvick for his second win of the year.
Much like every other competitor in Phoenix trying to take on Harvick, though, Junior fell short of the mark. But following the race, Earnhardt congratulated Harvick, who drives for JR Motorsports in the Nationwide Series, via his week-old Twitter account:
With the consistent performance at The Profit on CNBC 500 race in Phoenix, Earnhardt remains at the top of the Sprint Cup rankings for a second straight week.
Earnhardt's 90 points lead all other contenders with Brad Keselowski trailing by just six points in the No. 2 car. Along with Harvick sitting in the fourth position, Hendrick teammates Jeff Gordon (third) and Jimmie Johnson (fifth) round out the top five in the Sprint Cup standings.
After two races on the season, here is a look at the latest news on Earnhardt heading into the Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
|Position||Driver||Car||Points||Wins||Top 5||Top 10|
|1||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||88||90||1||2||2|
|The Profit on CNBC 500||Phoenix International Raceway||5||2|
|Daytona 500||Daytona International Speedway||9||1|
Dale Earnhardt Jr. News
Despite his early success thus far, Junior has remained humble in his 16th season behind the wheel in Sprint Cup.
The 39-year-old spoke about the difficulty of sustaining early success in NASCAR with other teams slowly working their way to the top, according to Jeff Gluck of USA Today:
So many teams can learn and progress and the competition gets tougher and tougher throughout the year as everybody starts seeing what is happening in the garage. Secrets don't last long. We've just got to work hard — harder than everybody else.
The pressure that comes along with being the most popular driver for 11 straight seasons is something that no other driver on the NASCAR circuit knows, but Junior has thrived under the pressure in 2014.
After just narrowly beating out Earnhardt in Phoenix, Harvick gave credit to his Nationwide car owner and talked about how special it was to be greeted by the Daytona 500 winner following the win, per Marty Smith of ESPN:
He's got so much pressure on him from everything that he does. You see the little bit of pressure that you get put on yourself or around our race team, but it's not even close to the magnitude that comes with that. To be the first guy's hand that I shook was pretty awesome.
The success of Junior is clearly a huge boost for his crew and Hendrick Motorsports, but it's also felt all throughout NASCAR.
After years of coming up short in nearly every race and being tabbed as nothing more than a mediocre driver, Earnhardt is experiencing a resurgence that is felt by his fans throughout the country. Gerry Fraley of the Dallas Morning News (subscription required) wrote about that exact point leading up to the race in Phoenix:
Earnhardt is the sport’s most popular driver. When Junior is not a factor, as has been the case, Cup racing loses appeal. When Junior is good, Cup racing becomes more attractive.
[...] The [Daytona 500] win lifted a suffocating weight. Earnhardt has drifted toward irrelevance. He opened his Cup career with 15 wins in his first five full seasons, through 2004, but followed with a slow descent into mediocrity.
With that weight finally lifted off his shoulders, Junior has allowed his personality to shine through. Though he didn't go through the same whirlwind tour that he did following the 500 win that took him to the Late Show with David Letterman and SportsCenter, he hasn't shied away from his fans on Twitter.
In fact, he opened up a live chat with fans for an hour leading up to the race in Phoenix and answered nearly every question that came his way. Along with reaching out to his fans, Junior has even joked with a few drivers like Austin Dillon, who was in awe of the environment in Las Vegas this week:
@austindillon3 rookie— Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) March 3, 2014
Along with the new Twitter account, Junior will also be featuring a brand new paint scheme for the Kobalt 400.
With his Mountain Dew sponsorship, the company is premiering its new Kickstart energy drink by giving Earnhardt a new midnight black car with an electric green side panel, according to Darren Rovell of ESPN:
Mountain Dew assigns Dale Jr to its Kickstart brand & gives him a new paint scheme pic.twitter.com/tdZsVSw3Kv— darren rovell (@darrenrovell) March 3, 2014
As for what's ahead of him, Junior has fared well at Las Vegas and could continue his run of recent success at the track.
In 2013, Earnhardt started out in the No. 12 position and wound up finishing in seventh place to earn his third straight top-10 finish. During his career at Las Vegas, he has two top fives and seven top 10s, according to Racing Reference.
If Junior can mirror the success he had last season in the first five races, he could remain in the top position in the NASCAR standings. He had three top-five finishes and took home a top-10 in each of his first five races.
With a great outlook on the season after two fantastic finishes to start the year, Earnhardt will look to continue that success in the Kobalt 400. And if the past is any indication of the future, Junior could keep his seat at the top of the throne in Sprint Cup.
Predicted finish: Fourth
Follow R. Cory Smith on Twitter: