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Earnhardt Jr. nearly pulls out second win of '14

March 09, 2014, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com

Fuel gamble almost pays off as the No. 88 runs out of gas on final lap

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LAS VEGAS -- There was a time when Dale Earnhardt Jr. admits he wouldn’t have taken Sunday's race-ending scenario at Las Vegas Motor Speedway very well. Running out of gas while leading on the final lap hurts, even when you're still basking in a Daytona 500 victory from three weeks ago and still lead the championship standings.

"I don't like to run second after getting passed on the last lap no matter if we run out of fuel or just get out-run," Earnhardt said, leaning against his No. 88 Mountain Dew Kickstart Chevrolet on pit road. "We came close to winning, man. You come close to winning and have it yanked away from you like that, it's not easy to accept.

"But you have to stay positive. We can't let this be a negative, running second and having a chance to win. Can't let the team get down; we're going to Bristol and need to stay positive and productive."

It was a lesson Earnhardt learned from a similar situation -- one he handled very differently at Pocono in 2008, with his cousin Tony Eury Jr. serving as his crew chief.

"We were supposed to be fine [on fuel] until the end of the race, and then we ran out with like two laps to go and I came in, took my helmet off and bashed a fender on the car and just made a real ass of myself and learned a lot from that experience," Earnhardt said of the Pocono incident. "My team was disappointed in my actions, and my cousin was disappointed in my actions and the way I was. So when we run out of gas now, you know, you've got to try to be positive, because those kind of things -- when you crash, wreck, blow up -- those kind of things, there's an opportunity there for it to be worse, and you make it worse than it is, or for you to try to clean up the mess and carry on.

"Throwing a tantrum and getting upset and mad about it don't do any good for your team. They don't feed off of that. If anything, it brings your team down."

And this season, no team is more "up" than Earnhardt's. After winning the sport's biggest race in the season opener at Daytona, he's finished runner-up in both races since and holds the Sprint Cup Series championship lead by a point over Sunday's race winner, Brad Keselowski, who has three top-three finishes as well.

That place atop the standings, and Earnhardt's victory already almost guaranteeing him a spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, plus the fact crew chief Steve Letarte is in his final year with the team before moving to the NBC Sports television booth all created a fitting Las Vegas-style setting for a strategy of doubling down and taking gambles. Earnhardt knew he was probably a lap shy on fuel while leading the field in the closing laps, but he was more willing to roll the dice.

"I think everybody has seen that over the last couple of weeks, that this (Chase) format has definitely allowed teams to gamble like we have,’’ Earnhardt said. "You know, it did pay off. Not the ultimate prize, but we did run second.

"I felt good about the car and proud of Steve and the strategy that he used to give us a chance to win. We're going to dearly miss that next year and hopefully we are learning what we need to learn in these last couple of years so (the team) can continue calling races as well as he does.

"It's disappointing, but at the same time the good Lord has blessed me with a good team and good fortune and a great opportunity."

As for Letarte, Earnhardt said the team has not made any decisions about a new crew chief for 2015. In fact, Earnhardt said, it hasn't even been discussed.

"There has been none about it," Earnhardt said. "We’ve got a lot of time and I think it’s best not to jump to a conclusion early. Steve’s a great part of that process, let him sort of watch the year unfold and see how the team is and understand what his opinion is on who would be best for that role.

"Unless you're really ready to make the decision, it's almost best not to even discuss it because you don't want rumors to start floating around in the shop and people start getting the wrong messages and stuff like that.

"When we're ready to make the decision, we'll sit down and we'll make it. And it'll be clear."

In the meantime, Earnhardt is enjoying the best start to a season in his 15 years at the Cup level.

"When we first got together we'd run our guts out to run in the top 15," Earnhardt said smiling. "Then the next year, we'd run our guts out to run in the top 10 and you wondered when you'd get up to fifth and start running in the top five regularly.

"We started doing that that finally last year and so our team just keeps stepping up this ladder. It just makes total sense to me how that process has went, having lived it and having seen the progression.

"So the sky's the limit for us, and if we are smart and keep our composure and don't get foolish and don’t get too proud of ourselves … just keep it in perspective, we've got a great opportunity this year to be this competitive every week."

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