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Loudon disappointment shows how far Junior has come

July 15, 2014, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com

Cain: Junior's mindset a sure sign of his determination to be champion

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As the television camera slowly focused on Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s face Sunday while he sat on the New Hampshire Motor Speedway pit wall after the Camping World RV Sales 301, he looked physically beat and mentally frustrated.

And yet that should be oddly comforting for Junior Nation. It was a good hurt. Earnhardt finished 10th in his No. 88 National Guard Chevrolet, although by looking at him you'd think he'd crashed out or blown up or hobbled home in 40th.

The effort was good enough to officially join Sunday's race winner Brad Keselowski as the only two drivers to clinch a 2014 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup berth, with multiple wins and a place in the top 30 of the standings secure. And yet Earnhardt was not satisfied.

His obvious disappointment on the day despite the big picture accomplishment is a telling sign of how highly motivated the sport's perennial Most Popular Driver is to also become its champion.

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There was a time not too long ago when Earnhardt would have considered a top-10 finish a reason to smile, if not celebrate. But not Sunday. Not this season.

"That was frustrating," Earnhardt said grimacing. "That was the hardest I've ever worked for a 10th-place finish. ... I had to drive so perfect every lap.  That was really frustrating. I had a good race with the No. 42 Kyle (Larson) at the end there. He was real loose, I was way too tight, so that was a mixture for us just to get stuck together and not be able to work around each other.  But I had fun racing him.

"We are going to have to come back here and run better than that to have a shot in the Chase. We will keep working. Tenth place I'm really disappointed, but I remember when we used to like these."

It was still stinging when he discussed on The Dale Jr. Download on Dirty Mo Radio.

"We need a little bit better race car when we go back, and I know that I didn't enjoy seeing how fast some of them other guys were, particularly Brad Keselowski," Earnhardt Jr. "I don't like to get outrun like that.

"That was just an ass-whuppin'. So I'm sure that's going to fire up all the guys at Hendrick, and when we go back to New Hampshire, I feel pretty damn confident we're not going to run like we did."

It's the attitude of a legit late-season contender. It is the difference in mindset between a championship team and one OK with just making the Chase. And there have been years when the latter was the case for Earnhardt.

However, being troubled over a mostly good race is something Earnhardt could get used to.

With two wins this season, including his second Daytona 500 victory, plus a firm place among the top five in the season standings all year and a spot in the 10-race playoff already locked up, Earnhardt is delivering an answer to those critics who have long -- and at times unfairly -- questioned his ability and challenged his commitment.

The upside of his Earnhardt pedigree has been a loud and loyal fan base. The downside of being the son of the sport's greatest driver is bearing the burden of proving himself over and over and over again.

Yet as Earnhardt closes in on his 40th birthday this October he is long over the need to "prove" himself. His quest for this first title is uniquely both personal and expansive. It would be affirming for himself -- payoff for the work, commitment and self-belief he has maintained. And yet, he knows what a championship would mean to the millions of fans who have supported, encouraged and lived vicariously through his race days and seasons for more than a decade.

He's in his best championship position -- and form -- in years.

"You could say it (clinching a spot in the Chase) was an afterthought, but we worked hard to get to where we are to be able to run as well as we have and win some races," Earnhardt said.

"It feels great. It's an accomplishment. I'm proud of our team for that.  Hopefully we can improve though before we come back here. This is an important race track so we need to run better than this and I know we will work hard to figure that out."

He felt just strongly Tuesday.

"I've always believed that if you work hard, the results will come," Earnhardt Jr. said. "And I don't know, you can't get too damn bent out of shape about it, but you've just got to keep working dammit so that's what we're going to do.

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