October 2, 2013
CHARLOTTE (AP) — Dale Earnhardt Jr. chased Jimmie Johnson around Dover International Speedway, only to see his teammate grab his record-setting eighth victory at the Monster Mile.
Earnhardt settled for second, his winless streak swelling to 48 races. For those keeping track, that’s just two wins in the 207 races since Earnhardt joined Johnson at Hendrick Motorsports in 2008.
So as Johnson grabbed that milestone victory, pulling within eight points of leader Matt Kenseth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, more than one skeptical fan wondered if Earnhardt had given less than 100 percent in the closing laps to allow his teammate to win.
Not a chance.
Disappointment oozed from Earnhardt immediately after the race. It was in his voice as he crossed the finish line, and he sounded deflated as he radioed the No. 88 team.
“He’s just so damn fast around here. I don’t know what else I could have done,” Earnhardt said. “I hate losing ‘em like that.”
He doesn’t get many chances like he had Sunday.
Prior to Sunday, he’d led only 165 laps this season and had just five other top-five finishes.
But at Dover, crew chief Steve Letarte gave him a fast Chevrolet from the very start: Earnhardt was the surprising pole-winner and was in control the first half of the race. Earnhardt led 80 laps at Dover and clearly had a car capable of winning.
Then came his own error — one that cost him dearly.
Earnhardt was headed to pit road for a routine stop under green when he missed the commitment cone to pit lane, and was unable to make his scheduled stop. He had to take an extra lap around the track, and the miscalculation dropped him from first to eighth, a whopping 9.3 seconds behind Johnson.
“We had the lead, gave up the lead. Jimmie had the lead and was able to take advantage of that clean air when it counted,” Earnhardt lamented. “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 get by Jimmie.”
That’s part of the reason why Earnhardt took Sunday’s defeat so hard. You don’t have to be perfect to win races, but you have to be pretty darn close. Self-inflicted errors are going to hurt every single time.
Johnson, with his five Cup titles, doesn’t make many mistakes. Especially not when the stakes are at their highest. He pounced when Earnhardt erred, and when a debris caution with 29 laps to go sent everybody to pit road one last time, a strategic call by Letarte still didn’t make a difference.
Johnson crew chief Chad Knaus called for only two new tires, but Letarte gave Earnhardt four. The No. 88 crew made the change fast enough to get Earnhardt off pit road in fourth, and the excitement in their voices was palpable as they realized they were the first car with four new tires.
Maybe, just maybe, Earnhardt could run down Johnson for his first victory since Michigan in 2012.
“I thought that four tires were going to be enough to get him,” Earnhardt said. “But he is just that fast around here.”
But had he ever made it to Johnson’s bumper?
“I was definitely going to do whatever I could to win if I could get within reach. I just couldn’t get to him,” Earnhardt shrugged.
The upside is that it was the second consecutive strong run for Earnhardt, who opened the 10-race Chase with a blown engine at Chicago. He rallied last week with a sixth-place finish at New Hampshire, where he led 17 laps, and his runner-up finish at Dover has moved him to 10th in the 13-driver Chase field.
He won’t win the championship this year. But there’s no shame in that — it’s practically a three-driver race already, with Kenseth, Johnson and Kyle Busch in a different league from the rest of the field.
But this is Earnhardt’s 14th full season at NASCAR’s highest level and he’ll celebrate his 39th birthday next week qualifying at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where he couldn’t race last season because of a concussion. He’s got a lot of pride, and he knows the clock is ticking on a career that has failed to live up to the expectations set by his rabid fan base.
Earnhardt, though, is never going to be a seven-time champion like his father, the 76-race winner.
He’s just going to be Dale Earnhardt Jr., a guy who fights hard for what he can get on the race track, and shows us just how much it hurts when he comes up short.