DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. —
But running in the top five in points most of the season, and even spending a few weeks atop the standings, provided a big boost for a ultra-popular driver trying to win his first Cup championship.
“I think we were in the conversation last year,” Earnhardt said. “Really excited about how consistent we were last year. We’ve been able to improve as we’ve worked together. We’ve been able to improve steadily over the last couple years. I hope that’s able to continue.
“I hope we haven’t realized our true potential. Maybe this year, if we can step it up another notch, we’d be right there where we’ve been striving to be the last couple years. It isn’t going to take much to improve over last year and be one of the top teams. We were pretty close last year and feel pretty good about that.”
It could be weeks, maybe months, before Junior knows how his No. 88 Chevrolet will stack up in 2013.
“No matter how close it is or far off it is, it’s hard to really put your finger on exactly what you’re missing, especially when you work with a company like I do that’s got all the parts, pieces, all the personnel,” he said. “It really comes down to the minds that are in control of everything, making the right calls and decisions on the racetrack.”
Fellow Hendrick Motorsports driver Jeff Gordon, a four-time series champion, believes it’s only a matter of time before everything clicks for Earnhardt.
“It seems like guys peak at certain moments in the season,” Gordon said. “With the way the points are now, you’ve got to peak right at the end of the season. You got to be careful of getting off to too good of a start and how you maintain that momentum. ... Junior had a great start to the season and then it seems like some things flattened out a little bit for them and it was hard for them to get it ramped back up. I don’t see why (he can’t win a championship). It’s a great team, best organization.”