For Dale Earnhardt Jr., winning is the final step

 Driver, crew chief confident entering final season together

He feels the burn whenever he sees one of those season-in-review videos, the kind featuring a montage of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers and their accomplishments over the past year. The images blend from one into another, but so many are the same — celebratory burnouts, sprayed champagne and fluttering confetti, trophies lifted high overhead. There’s often one exception, though, and it leaves Dale Earnhardt Jr. eager to get back to the race track and set things straight.

“All the shots of you are just walking around on pit road, or doing something other than standing in Victory Lane,” he said. “And that’s very motivating.”

NASCAR-dale-earnhardt-jr_small2 For Dale Earnhardt Jr., winning is the final step

Indeed that was the case in 2013, when Earnhardt’s best season in a decade was missing just one thing — a race victory. While NASCAR’s most popular driver has undoubtedly shown improvement as his tenure with Hendrick Motorsports has progressed, race wins remain a glaring omission. Last season Earnhardt placed fifth in points, recorded a career-best 22 top-10 finishes and took a giant leap toward returning to elite status — and yet, he still went winless for the fourth time in the past five years.

There were plenty of close calls, including five runner-up finishes and a third-place result in a season finale he led until 24 laps remained, all of it bolstering hopes that a breakthrough may be imminent. This may be the final season Earnhardt works with Steve Letarte before his crew chief heads to the television booth, and he may be operating under a new Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup format that places an emphasis on victories over everything else. But for the driver of the No. 88 car, there remains an unshakable belief that the dam is about to give way.

“Where I am as a driver in the past couple of years, I think I am on the verge of breaking through and having possibly one of my best seasons. Maybe it’s just the stars aligning or fate that they’re making these changes, and maybe we just have the type of season we need to have to be the guy in Homestead holding the trophy. So with the trajectory our team has had, we’re peaking at the right time to battle for a championship,” Earnhardt said.

“I never felt, even when they changed the Chase the first time, I never felt they would change the format and how you won it would change. I always feel like the best car, the guy who runs the best, the guy who is the most consistent, wins the most races or what have you — the guy who is the guy will be the champion. Still feel that way, even with the new rules. … If we do what we need to do and keep getting better, we’re going to have a shot. We’re going to be there. We’re going to be one of those four guys at Homestead.”

Heady words indeed from a driver who has two race victories since moving to Hendrick in 2008, and hasn’t been in contention for the title on the final weekend since his days at Dale Earnhardt Inc. Even so, Earnhardt and Letarte look back on all those runner-up runs a season ago — three of them to the No. 48 car of Hendrick stable mate and reigning champion Jimmie Johnson — and see them as evidence of how close they really are.

“We’re getting close. We’re working hard. And trust me, no one wants to win more than me and Steve,” Earnhardt said. “That’s what our goal’s going to be this year, is to win more races. And if we keep doing what we’re supposed to do, and what we’ve been doing, which I know we will, we’re going to do that. It’s inevitable.”

Although Letarte isn’t necessarily a believer that momentum carries over from season to season — cars and rules change, never more than for 2014 — lessons can still be learned. The good news for the No. 88 team is that the shortcomings of last year were situational rather than systemic — the car showed speed all season, and Earnhardt continued to show patience and maturity under his crew chief. The team’s plan of rolling out its best cars for the Chase unquestionably paid dividends, and in retrospect Letarte wouldn’t change it. There were no major pieces lacking, only a move here or a bit of strategy there.

“We’ve just been second a lot,” Letarte said. “We’ve been second to the 48 a bunch, which is a great thing, because we know what equipment is beating us. It’s a frustrating thing, because you know what equipment is beating you. But it’s better to run second to the 48 than third to the 48. We’re proud of the runs we made, and there were a couple that I thought we had a really good shot at, and they didn’t come to fruition. And we don’t just push those to the side. We analyze them. We look at Homestead and say, ‘Why didn’t we win?’ That’s not a, ‘Hey, what did you do wrong, what did I do wrong?’ It’s, ‘What can we do better?’ … I think everyone is willing to take responsibility in getting better, and that’s a special group.”

Still, the lack of winning can take its toll. “It really motivates you and ticks you off,” Earnhardt said. And Letarte will admit, his team can get frustrated — they are competitors, after all. But unlike fans who may moan and wail after the No. 88 car comes up short yet again, within the race team it’s those second- and third-place finishes that keep optimism alive.

“Is everybody disappointed and has frustration because we want to win? Absolutely. We care too much about our job to not want to win. That’s why we race,” Letarte said. “But I don’t think that running close and not winning has been a detriment. I think it’s been an improvement that’s forced us to continually improve. I look at it that way. I would be concerned if you ran second and everybody got down and you thought it was a detriment the next week. I’ve seen it as the opposite. You go and you run second, I think they’re more fired up to get to the next week, because we feel we have a shot to win.”

At some point, though, the wins have to come, particularly given how the Chase has been revamped to award the majority of playoff berths to race winners, and how those who reach Victory Lane will have a decided advantage in advancing through each round. Although NASCAR has said Earnhardt would have won the title in 2013 had the new format been applied to last year’s results, it’s impossible to know if everyone involved would have raced the same way given the change in circumstances.

Regardless, the No. 88 team is making no assumptions. To take the last remaining step, from fifth in points to true championship contenders, there’s only one thing left to do.

“You have to win. It’s that simple. You have to win races,” Letarte said. “… I think winning, it’s kind of like a star quarterback. There are some great quarterbacks who have some great stats, and there are quarterbacks that win. And we have a lot of great stats, but to consider ourselves a championship contender, my personal belief is, you must win to be a championship contender. There are too many great teams not to.”

For Earnhardt, the idea of winning races in 2014 isn’t just a hope — it’s a belief. The confidence over the potential the coming year holds is evident in his voice. He can envision the cracks in that dam, and if the breakthrough does indeed come, he might not be seen holding just any trophy in the next season-in-review video he watches. He might be holding the biggest one of them all.

“To win the championship, we as a team definitely need to win races regardless of the format,” Earnhardt said. “We ran second a lot last year, and that felt great. It was a statement for us personally that what we’re doing is working, and we’re getting closer to that goal. I think we’re right there. I think we’re right around the corner. This is the year. Maybe this is the year.”