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Dale Earnhardt Jr. enthused by Chase performance, first year with Greg Ives

56th Daytona 500

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 23: Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 National Guard Chevrolet, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 23, 2014 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

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AVONDALE, Ariz. - Another year will elapse without a Sprint Cup championship for Dale Earnhardt Jr., but he says he is thrilled with the progress he’s made in his first year with crew chief Greg Ives.

Earnhardt ranks seventh in the points after his win Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway. He’s on pace for his third consecutive top-10 finish in the points - something he’s never done in his career. His 16 top-five finishes tie a career high set in 2004, and his 22 top-10 finishes tie a career high set two years ago.

It points to a promising 2016 as Earnhardt and Ives learn to better communicate with each other.

“I’m happier at this particular point in this Chase because in the Chases beforehand we really just didn’t live up to our potential,’’ Earnhardt said after his 26th career series win. “We just struggled and flat‑out didn’t run good enough.

“But in this particular Chase, we’ve been close. We’re close, man, and this is my first year with Greg, and I really think that we’ve got a lot to improve on, and we will, and we’ll get even better and he’ll get better. He’s still got a lot of confidence to build up in how he’s doing his job and what he thinks about the decisions he’s making. I can see some apprehension still. Once he’s clear of all that and me and him really start to communicate better and understand what we want from each other, there’s a lot more there for us, a lot more speed and performance there for us.’’

That one of Earnhardt’s best years in his career came in a season when Hendrick Motorsports had a 15-race winless drought is telling because he shows how far he’s progressed. Earnhardt proved that even when Hendrick doesn’t have the strongest equipment, he can run well.

He might not be done winning this year. While the expectation is that one of the four remaining title contenders - Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. - will need to win this weekend’s race in Miami, a driver not eligible for the title could take the victory. Drivers not eligible for the Chase have won the past two races.

“If my car drives like it did at Texas, I’m going to win,’’ said Earnhardt, who finished sixth despite tagging the wall and damaging his car. “I told Greg to just make it drive just like that, I won’t hit the wall with it and we’ll win the race.We should have won Texas. But (Homestead-Miami Speedway) is really similar to Texas, so I feel confident that we can go there and run well. It’s been a really difficult track for me for a really, really long time but we had an awesome run there a couple years ago, and I think that track suits me, how we have to run the high line there.’’

Another sign that notes how much Earnhardt is looking forward to the season finale is that he tested there.

“I hate testing,’’ he said. “Testing is really boring, but when I get nominated to test at Homestead it’s not such a bad thing because it’s pretty fun. So that says how much I really like that place if I don’t mind going there to test at it.’’

It could be what helps him complete one of his best seasons.

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