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Off to hot start, Dale Earnhardt Jr. must improve

Photo: John Raoux/AP

Comfort with his car and chemistry with crew chief Steve Letarte (left) have put Junior on an early roll.

Excitement and relief punctuated Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s radio chatter moments after a late rally on Sunday extended his career-best start to a Cup season.

"Hell of a drive there, buddy,'' crew chief Steve Letarte said. "That's sixth.''

"Good strategy, as usual,'' Earnhardt responded. "You saved my ass ... too many times.''

"Well, we got to get it a little better,'' Letarte said. "For once we finished better than we ran. It seems like every time here that we finish worse than we've run, so it's nice to be the other one.''

While it might have been easy to overlook Earnhardt's run because of the bickering between former teammates Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano on and off the track, and Kasey Kahne's victory, don't discount his achievement. Earnhardt gained eight spots in the final 50 laps at Bristol to extend his season-opening top-10 streak to four races heading into this weekend's event at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, CA, where he placed third last season.

The only reason why Earnhardt is not the points leader is because defending series champion Brad Keselowski has had an even better start, finishing no worse than fourth in the first four races. He leads Earnhardt by nine points (166-157), but Jimmie Johnson (151) is the only driver within 20 points of them after the season's first month.

Earnhardt's run is not surprising. Many expected Hendrick Motorsports to be strong early with the debut of the Gen-6 car, just as the organization was when the Car of Tomorrow debuted in 2007. With more resources than most teams have, Hendrick should find advantages more quickly.

Also, Earnhardt likes this new car more than the previous version. He never felt comfortable with the CoT and has talked about how the Gen-6 feels more like the car he raced in the mid-2000s when he enjoyed his most successful period in the series. Another factor to not discount is Earnhardt's partnership with Letarte, now its third year. Letrate rebuilt Earnhardt's confidence and gave him fast cars. The results have followed. Perhaps it's mere coincidence, but the last two Cup champions -- Keselowksi in 2012 and Tony Stewart in 2011 -- were in their third years with their crew chiefs when they won their crowns.

A sign of how well Letarte and Earnhardt are working together can be seen in the way they overcame their struggles at Bristol. Junior fought an ill-handling car during most of the race before making his late rally. That kind of performance that can mean so much in the Chase. And Letarte's decision to pit during the final caution, which came out with 45 laps to go after Johnson blew a tire and hit the wall, proved key. Earnhardt was 13th when Letarte called in his driver for adjustments and two left-side tires, deciding to change them instead of the ones on the right side because it would make for a quicker pit stop if the crew members did not have to run around the car. That moved Earnhardt two spots to 11th for the restart. Once the green waved, he began to make his move.

That late rally marked the second time this season that Earnhardt has gained eight or more spots in the last tenth of a race. Although it's early in the schedule, no driver has picked up more on average late in races than Earnhardt (3.8). But before Junior and his legion of fans can dream of a championship, though, more work remains.

Earnhardt and his team have been good, but not great. Good won't win them, or anyone, a championship. Last year, Keselowski placed in the top 10 in 17 of the final 20 races and had an average finish of 6.3 in the Chase on the way to his first Sprint Cup title. Tony Stewart won the 2011 crown by capturing five of the 10 Chase races. Jimmie Johnson won the 2010 title with an average finish of 4.1 in the final nine Chase races.

Earnhardt recognizes the need for improvement, stating to Letarte on the radio after finishing seventh at Las Vegas earlier this month, "We've got to get a little bit better. We see what's better, we're real close to it with what we're doing.''

The key during the next few weeks will be how much Earnhardt and his team can improve. They couldn't gain the track position they needed to contend at Las Vegas and they were not as strong at Bristol as the three Joe Gibbs cars and teammate Kahne. They did finish in the top four in all three races a year ago on the kind of two-mile oval where they will race next. Then it's off to Martinsville, where Earnhardt has four top-10 finishes in his last five starts there. From there, the series heads to Texas where he has placed in the top 10 in the last three races. So he's in position to carry his fast start into a second month. The test will be what he does later in the season.

"We're still learning a lot and there's still a lot of things to uncover as far as what makes this car really run well,'' Earnhardt said. "We're hoping we can stay ahead of the curve.''

Power Rankings

1. Brad Keselowski -- Third-place finish at Bristol continues his hot streak. He's opened the season with four consecutive finishes of fourth or better.

2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- Rallied to take sixth at Bristol. Never before has he opened a season with four consecutive top-10 finishes.

3. Kasey Kahne -- A week after finishing second at Las Vegas, he wins at Bristol.

4. Jimmie Johnson -- Was set for another good finish until a blown tire sent him into the wall. He ended up 22nd.

5. Matt Kenseth -- If he can finish, he's nearly unstoppable, but at Bristol he again had a fast car and didn't make it to the end. This time, he had no chance to avoid Jeff Gordon's car after it hit the wall in front of him, taking the leaders out of the race.

6. Kyle Busch -- Finished second, but was caught for speeding on pit road for the second week in a row. That issue has got to stop.

7. Denny Hamlin -- Maybe should have been ranked higher just for the Twitter battle he got into with Joey Logano after their on-track incident and brief "discussion.'' First, it was his battle against NASCAR over a $25,000 fine and now this. Can Hamlin go a week without controversy?

8. Mark Martin/Brian Vickers -- Vickers ran his first race in the No. 55 car that Martin is running most of this year and finished eighth. The two have combined for two top-10s in the season's first four races and an average finish of 11.5.

9. Paul Menard -- Ninth-place finish marked his second consecutive top-10 result. Of course, he's gotten off to good starts before only to fade. Let's see what he does this time.

10. Clint Bowyer -- Finished fifth at Bristol to earn his second top-10 of the season.

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