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A painful career-best for Earnhardt Jr. at Darlington

April 12, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Runner-up finish at 'Lady in Black' a bittersweet result

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DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. doesn't want to hear it.

"Everybody was telling me that I had a 15‑car‑length lead, and I don't want to hear about that," the two-time Daytona 500 champion said Saturday night. "I'm going to hear about it all day tomorrow, man: 'You almost won it.' They said we had it won with a 15‑car‑length lead coming into that last white flag when the caution came out on the back straightaway."

The yellow flag flew for the 11th and final time at NASCAR's oldest superspeedway when Clint Bowyer got into the back of Kurt Busch, turning the No. 41 car hard into the outside wall and forcing a second attempt at a green-white-checkered finish in the Bojangles' Southern 500. That meant Earnhardt would have to hold off Kevin Harvick on a third restart to close the race, knowing that the driver behind him had four fresh tires to his two, not to mention the most dominant car in the race.

In the end, Harvick's four tires made the difference, as the Stewart-Haas Racing driver stormed by just before the white flag dropped for his second victory of the season. Earnhardt was left with a runner-up finish that proved his best career result at Darlington Raceway, a place where he'd never previously been better than fourth.

"He was pretty fast," Earnhardt said of Harvick. "I think he was going to drive the (expletive) out of it and try to get there. I was trying not to look in the mirror, just try to run as hard as I could. I didn't know how much speed the car had -- we were on two tires, it was late in the night. You want to drive the car as hard as you can without pushing …  and we just were running some laps a lot different than we'd been running all night, really. But feels good to be close."

Particularly since Earnhardt once loathed Darlington, to the point where early in his career the track staff presented him with a seashell trophy -- meant to represent the facility's coarse surface at the time -- as kind of a tongue-in-cheek tribute. Even today, NASCAR's most popular driver considers Darlington one of his worst tracks, a sentiment he voiced over the radio once again after the checkered flag fell Saturday night.

"Y'all carried me at one of my worst tracks," he told his team. It certainly didn't seem that way Saturday, when Earnhardt was near the front all night and was a serious threat to win here for the first time in his career. Earnhardt had twice placed fourth at Darlington, most recently in 2008, and has suffered through some long stretches of difficult finishes on Harold Brasington's quirky egg-shaped oval.

But if you think he was patting himself on the back Saturday night, think again. A 15-car-length lead is tough to get past.

"It's a little disappointing to come that close, because I know I don't really run that well here and the opportunities to win are going to be very few compared to other tracks," Earnhardt said. "It hurts a little bit to come that close because we worked so hard to try to win races. Running second is great, but nobody is going to really remember that. But we're proud of it. We're proud of it. And (crew chief) Steve (Letarte), I know he's very proud.

"They did a great job giving me a really good car to be able to run that well here. The car was phenomenal. Really proud of those guys' effort. Even though they know where my shortcomings are, they worked their guts out to try to get us the best. Sometimes if I admittedly say this isn't my best track, it's easy to sort of back off, but those guys really push the pedal and give me everything I can to give me the best chance to finish as best I can. They did that tonight. That was a great example of that."

The pivotal moment came under what proved to be the third-to-last caution in the race, when yellow flew for fluid on the track with nine laps remaining. Letarte called for two tires, and the No. 88 car came out second behind Jimmie Johnson. Harvick took four tires and restarted third. The race was forced into a green-white-checkered finish after another caution for debris, and after again restarting second Earnhardt jetted out to the lead. He might have stayed there if not for the final caution, which ultimately allowed Harvick to reel him in.

"It took three restarts for him to get there. I don't think he wins the first one or the second one with what I consider the best car all night," Letarte said of Harvick. The crew chief also stuck by his two-tire call. "People want to say there's a right or wrong answer, but unless you can say how many guys are going to do it and exactly how many restarts you're going to have, there's never a right or wrong answer."

Winning crew chief Rodney Childers said that last caution certainly helped his team's cause. "We got a little bit fortunate there with the caution coming out," he said. "If that wouldn't have happened, we probably wouldn't have won the race. It's hard to say. It's always easy to go back and think about that stuff and what you should have done and shouldn't have done. I think we could have won the race on two tires, and we still won it on four."

On a night when Harvick led 238 laps, it was difficult to argue. Just as it was difficult to believe that Darlington is one of Earnhardt's worst tracks, especially after he came so close to winning.

"I love this place. I was raised by Jeff Gordon, and he loves this place," said Letarte, a longtime member of Gordon's No. 24 team before taking the reins of Earnhardt's program. "It's a place where we've come and run well, but never put together a whole race. So it felt really good to put together a whole race. And (Earnhardt) is way better here than he gives himself credit for."

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