Dale Jr. comes up just short at Dover
September 29, 2013, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
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DOVER, Del. -- Sounding every bit the fierce, motivated competitor he looked on track Sunday afternoon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was equal parts glad to turn his pole position into a runner-up finish and frustrated to have been so good yet left to watch his teammate Jimmie Johnson celebrate in Victory Lane at Dover International Speedway.
"Two weeks in a row we've had two fantastic race cars," Earnhardt said. "(I'm) proud of all the guys for bringing such good cars to the race track. It certainly makes my job easier, gives us opportunities to win like this.
"Trying to look on the bright side, I'm a little disappointed we didn't pull off the win. Felt like we had the perfect strategy. Had maybe the best car, arguably the best car, today. With those four tires I thought we could get it done.
"We left everybody in the mirror. We were clicking off some laps, but just not fast enough to get to Jimmie."
Earnhardt's No. 88 National Guard Chevrolet was the first car on four fresh tires and came out fourth following the final round of pit stops with 26 laps remaining. He quickly passed two cars on the restart and began reeling in Johnson, whose Chevy had only two fresh tires.
Earnhardt got within a half-second of the No. 48's bumper but ran out of laps, ultimately finishing .446 seconds shy of hoisting his first trophy of the year -- but encouraged by his fourth top-10 in the last six races.
"The No. 88 was so strong early, when he got four tires, I thought he might be trouble for Jimmie," team owner Rick Hendrick said on pit road after the race.
Earnhardt, who led six times for 80 of the race's 400 laps, was as fast as his pole-winning effort would indicate. But a pair of pit-road mishaps cost him early forcing him to play catch-up to his Hendrick Motorsports teammate.
While leading on Lap 117, Earnhardt prepared to drive down pit road but was unable to steer his Chevy within the mandatory pit road commitment marks, which forced him to turn another lap around the "Monster Mile." He went from holding a nearly four-second lead over Johnson at that point to returning to the track eighth.
Later in the race, Earnhardt got caught behind a much slower Mark Martin at the pit entrance, forcing him to patiently ride behind Martin for part of the long drive to his stall located all the way at the pit exit.
"If you look at the race as a whole, they did cost us a little bit, at least the mistake I made missing pit road completely," Earnhardt said. "We had the lead, gave up the lead and Jimmie (Johnson) had the lead and was able to take advantage of that clean air when it counted.
"If I had not given up that track position, had a smart enough race to keep the lead when it counted right at the end, we might have won the race. It would have been hard to get by us, just like it was to be by Jimmie.
"I think missing the commitment cone was a big factor in us not finishing one spot ahead of where we are. But the other pit stop wasn't that big a deal."
Because both of those incidents happened relatively early in the race, Earnhardt rebounded over and over again.
"The pressure was on," Johnson said of the final laps. "I ran my guts out to stay ahead of him. Everything I could turn twist and pull on the car. … I drove the (expletive) out of that thing."
For Earnhardt, just knowing he had a car good enough to win was both the good news and the bad news for him.
"I feel like in the last couple of weeks, we've been able to really show what our team's capable of," Earnhardt said. "We've been really quick on the sheet every day, fast in practice. The changes we're making, everything seems to be working right, going in the direction you want. I feel like when we get it right we can compete and we can win.
"We came really close today. I don't feel like today was a highlight for us. I think this is how it's supposed to be every week."
The runner-up at Dover along with the sixth-place finish last week at New Hampshire moved Earnhardt up one position in the Sprint Cup Series standings to 10th.
He's now 57 points behind championship leader Matt Kenseth, but only 18 points behind fifth-place Jeff Gordon with seven races remaining in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
"I'll be honest with you, it sucks to lose regardless of who wins," Earnhardt said smiling and shaking his head. "It's probably harder to run second than it is fifth or 10th. When you have a car like we had today, you don't get good cars every week so you like to capitalize."