Updated: March 12, 2012, 2:51 PM ET

Dale Earnhardt Jr. off to a blazing start

Newton By David Newton

Dale Earnhardt Jr Sam Sharpe/US PresswireDale Earnhardt Jr. is fourth in the Sprint Cup standings, but he still hasn't won in 132 races.

We interrupt Tony Stewart's win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Greg Biffle's rare move to the top of the Sprint Cup standings for a very important news flash: Dale Earnhardt Jr. is off to the best start of his career.

NASCAR's most popular driver is a career-best fourth in the points standings with a career-best average finish of 8.6 after three races.

His previous best points position three races in was seventh in 2004, and his average points position at this point in 12 seasons is 17.5. His previous best average finish three races in was 14.0 a year ago and during his rookie year of 2000, and his average finish was 19.9.

Earnhardt still hasn't won in 132 consecutive races, but these numbers, along with the 70 laps he led at Las Vegas on Sunday, should be encouraging. He led only 52 laps in all of 2011.

Before you can win races and contend for championships, you have to lead laps.

Another encouraging sign was the spunk Earnhardt showed after a late run-in with Mark Martin left his former Hendrick Motorsports teammate in the wall with about 25 laps remaining.

Instead of backing down passively and being satisfied with a 10th-place finish, Earnhardt took a strong stand in his postrace interview, just as he did on the track by not giving Martin an inch making a pass.

"Personally, yeah, I don't have a problem with Mark and have so much respect for him," Earnhardt told reporters in Las Vegas. "But to me, personally, there is an unwritten etiquette that when the guy is running the top even if you are clearing him or passing him … if you barely clear him off the corner … I'm coming 10 miles an hour faster off the top of the racetrack, you stay low.

"Don't knock a half-second off my lap time being a jerk about it. Stay low. You are going to get it in the next corner and the position is going to be yours. Don't pull up in front of somebody when they are going to come off the corner 10 miles an hour faster."

Another good sign is that Earnhardt was clearly frustrated with the finish, particularly after leading 70 of the first 73 laps.

"That just kind of really sent me over the edge there," he said of the run-in with Martin, who limped home in 18th. "We just want to win really bad and felt like we should have finished better than we did.

"I was just frustrated at that point, and that is just not the way that I understand it to be done … and I am sure he feels a different way about it, but I think we definitely disagreed right there at that moment."

A feisty driver, an unsatisfied driver, often makes for a better driver. The concern would be if Earnhardt wasn't upset.

That Earnhardt took the blame for where he finished instead of tossing it on crew chief Steve Letarte and others, as he has done in the past, also was a good sign.

"Well, we didn't keep up with the racetrack," Earnhardt said. "The car was really fast at the start of the race. I didn't give that information to Steve. I don't think I gave him a good enough understanding of where our race car was, even though it was really fast.

"The track got really tight on us at the end of the race -- something that I should have had a handle on, and should have known better, and should have not let happen."

Another good sign is that Earnhardt started fourth, the second time in three races he's started in the top five. A year ago, Earnhardt's average start in the first three races was 23rd and his season average was 19.6.

You can't make a quick move to the lead like he did on the first lap Sunday unless you're near the front.

"Hopefully we can keep bringing cars like that to the racetrack and we will get some opportunities to win," Earnhardt said. "We had good speed, led some laps.

"This is a tough series. When you get back in traffic, it gets very competitive."

There's more good news. Earnhardt is headed to Bristol Motor Speedway, where he has an average finish of 11.7. That's slightly better than the three drivers -- Biffle, Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin -- ahead of him in points.

It's not totally unrealistic to think Earnhardt could leave Bristol with the points lead. Biffle has the lead for only the second time in his career. When he had it last, in 2005 at Infineon Raceway, it lasted only one week.

So while Stewart winning the race and Biffle taking the points lead is big news, Earnhardt off to the best start of his career is worth the interruption.

"If we keep doing that every week, you know, we are going to be right there," Earnhardt said. "We will just keep trying."

Terry Blount column | Racing Live! rewind | Recap | Results

Nationwide Series: Random thoughts from Vegas …

Several observations on Saturday's race at LVMS:

• Trevor Bayne deserves an opportunity to drive in Saturday's race at Bristol even if Roush Fenway loses money without a sponsor. He is listed as doubtful, sad for a driver fourth in points with a pair of top-10s. He looked pretty good with a top-10 in the Vegas Cup race, too.

• Cole Whitt didn't deserve to be chewed out like he was by JR Motorsports teammate Danica Patrick for a bump at Daytona. In three races Whitt has finished fourth, 13th and sixth to rank fifth in points. Patrick has gone 38th, 21st and 12th to rank 15th. So who is the better driver?

• Patrick was right when she said she needed to work on restarts. During a late restart at Las Vegas she went from sixth to 10th in less than a lap. As much as she progressed from 2010 to 2011, she still needs to be more aggressive, not only on restarts but passing in general.

• It might be time for Richard Childress to put grandson Austin Dillon in the 33 for a few Cup races to prep for next season. It's early, but with three top-10s in three Nationwide races, Dillon is on the fast track for the big leagues.

• Defending champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has come a long way from 2010 when he crashed in the first two races and in five of the first 12. He has 11 top-10s in the past 12 races, including Saturday's win.

• Remember when everyone complained about Cup drivers winning all the Nationwide races? Not one has won in 2012.

• It wasn't that long ago that Kyle and Kurt Busch talked about winning all 33 races in the No. 54 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota. So far that car has gone 18th, 11th and 33rd.

Brant James column: Danica makes progress | Recap | Results

Camping World Truck Series: Martinsville on deck

The series is on hiatus until the March 31 race at Martinsville Speedway.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.


You must be signed in to post a comment

Already have an account?