He's been fast at nearly every track in the Chase. He finished second on the concrete, one-mile soup bowl that is Dover International Speedway on the final Sunday of September. He was second at NASCAR's biggest track, the 2.66-mile behemoth of Talladega, in mid-October. And he came in second again last weekend at the 1.5-mile oval of Texas Motor Speedway. Yes, over the last six weeks, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been the best driver in NASCAR not named Jimmie Johnson or Matt Kenseth.
Earnhardt's title aspirations went up with the cloud of smoke that billowed from beneath the hood of his No. 88 Chevy when the engine blew late in the Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway. But since that long rainy night in Joliet, Ill., Earnhardt has strung together six top-eight runs in seven races. He's led at least 10 laps in five of those events. What's more, his car has typically been faster at the end of races than at the beginning, a telltale sign that the driver and his crew chief are working in harmony and their mid-race adjustments are translating into additional speed.
"The Chicago deal is regrettable," Earnhardt said. "We'd love to go back and do that over again, but as soon as that happened, we really changed our approach ... I've got two races to go and we'd love to get a win in one of them and continue to have a good run here in the Chase."
Though Earnhardt has yet to reach Victory Lane this season, his impressive autumn performance does win him one thing: the number one spot in my top-five surprises of the 2013 Chase. His confidence, which has been shaky in the past, is at an all-time high and it would surprise no one in the garage if he takes the checkers on Sunday at Phoenix, where he has two career wins.
"I have this theory," said Rick Hendrick, Earnhardt's team owner. "You're not going to win [a race] until you you're consistently in the top 10 and then you've got to be consistently in the top five. When you can run consistently in the top five, you're going to win races and he's been right there... He could be right in the middle of this championship had we not lost that engine [at Chicagoland], and he had nothing to do with that."
No, he didn't. And now Earnhardt and his No. 88 team are looking more and more like they'll be title contenders in 2014.
Here are my four other big surprises in this year's Chase:
Kasey Kahne's struggles
At the start of the season Kahne was the fastest man at Hendrick Motorsports, flashing more speed than his teammates Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon. After the first eight races, Kahne had one win and four top-fives, and he was ranked second in the points standings.
But Kahne has disappointed this fall. He has three finishes of 27th or worse and he's currently in last place in the 13-driver playoff field. Kahne should look to Jimmie Johnson, who was slow at the outset of the season, to learn a valuable lesson when it comes to winning championships: When you run fast is what really matters.
Kevin Harvick's consistency
As a general rule, drivers who are leaving their teams at the end of the season don't fare well in the Chase. But that hasn't been the case with Harvick, who is moving to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014 after spending 13 years at Richard Childress Racing piloting the car once driven by Dale Earnhardt.
Harvick has finished sixth or better in five of the eight Chase events. He looks like a solid bet to wind up third in points for the fourth time in his career. All in all, this has been an impressive playoff performance by the departing driver of the No. 29 Chevy.
Joey Logano's fade
Within the walls of the Cup garage, there's a belief that momentum is a powerful force in NASCAR. Once a driver gets on a roll and pieces together a few top-five runs, the belief goes, then there will be a carryover effect to the next race and speed will magically follow. So that is why it's hard to explain the fade of Logano, who scored more points than any other driver over the final seven races of the regular season. In the playoffs, he has been a picture of inconsistency, with three top-fives to go with three finishes of 18th or worse. Perhaps this will be a learning experience for the 22-year-old driver, whose best days clearly are ahead of him.
Brad Keselowski's silence
Last year, Keselowski trailed Johnson by seven points with two races to go. Most people in the garage did not even give him a puncher's chance of taking down the five-time champion, but Keselowski proceeded to pull off the biggest upset of the Chase era by outdriving Johnson to win his first Cup title.
Keselowski didn't qualify for the playoffs this season, but given his mastery of the Chase tracks in 2012, expectations were high for the driver of the No. 2 Dodge. He hasn't delivered. Yes, he did reach Victory Lane at Charlotte in October, but the reigning Cup champ's average finish in the first eight playoff races has been 14.0 -- a far cry from his Chase average of 6.2 from a year ago.