If you look at the results and where Dale Earnhardt Jr. sits in points, the obvious answer to this question would be yes. Following a second place finish two weeks ago at Martinsville and a ninth place finish at Texas, more fans believe this to be the obvious answer.
“I ain’t really proved it to myself yet,” he told SBNation.com after the Martinsville race.
“I’ll let you know when I feel like I’m back, personally. Anyone that watched that race today knows that we weren’t a second‑place race car or even a third‑place race car all day. We never were up there to prove that point. So there’s no argument: We got some work to do still.
“We are faster, we are more competitive than last year. But we still got a little ways to go.”
The No. 88 team put themselves in contention through fuel strategy at Martinsville, though the driver wasn’t able to capitalize on it.
With 20 to go, he took the lead from Kyle Busch with a bump-and-run, though lost the lead with four to go to the hands of Kevin Harvick, as the handling went away on the No. 88 Chevy.
“I was just doing the best could I do with the car and trying to make the best out of the situation,” he said. “We had an opportunity to win the race. I’m disappointed that I didn’t get the job done and it will probably bother me more and more as the night goes on. I’ll probably think about it a million times what I probably could have done differently.”
Though beyond these two races, has he proved that he is championship worthy?
He haven’t qualified the greatest most of the year. He got the pole for the Daytona 500, though his highest qualifying effort since then was 22nd at Bristol Motor Speedway.
“The biggest problem we had was qualifying poorly, trying to overcome that all day,” Earnhardt said in the post-race report following Phoenix where he started 35th.
“We had a good enough car with them guys and kind of proved it in a couple of instances. But, you have to get by them. You get stuck behind them, and it’s hard to really show how good the car is. Every time we passed somebody, we just left them.”
“I’ve got to do a better job helping them put a car on the track for qualifying that’s going to get us in the top 15 for qualifying,” he said following Fontana.
“You’re really not helping yourself starting races in 30th. We have really good race cars and don’t want to be doing that.”
If he is going to begin to get himself back in contention, qualifying well is definitely going to be a good start.
Despite the poor qualifying efforts, though, he has managed to finish in the top 12 every week, including two top 10s at Phoenix and Las Vegas.
At Phoenix, he worked his way through the field after starting 35th, played some fuel strategy to get himself in contention for a top 10 and finished 10th on the money.
A week later at Las Vegas, he worked his way through the field throughout the day to finish eighth. Part of this steams back to the relationship that Earnhardt is developing with Steve LeTarte.
“I just kept describing what I was feeling and what I thought I needed and Steve was really hitting right on it every time.” Earnhardt said following Las Vegas.
“I think that’s what he’s great at and that’s what he’s doing right now,” Earnhardt shared during his Bristol media availability on LeTarte helping him.
“He gives you the impression that when you get yourself in a hole or the car isn’t quite going like you want it to go or the car isn’t responding like you think it should, you get the impression that you’ll get it fixed. As long as he doesn’t fool me too many times, yeah. He does a great job at, you know, just keeping you in the game. You’re part of the puzzle, and everybody needs to be pulling in the same direction. He’s good at what he does. Ain’t no doubt about it.”
Another thing that has kept Earnhardt from being a contender is pit road issues. He slid through his stall at Phoenix and was caught speeding on pit road at Bristol.
If he can qualify better, get the pit road issues sorted out and have a strong car throughout the entire race, then he could easily be part of the championship battle during the final 10 races. Though one thing is certain—this is definitely an improvement from where he was last year.