DOVER, Del. – If not for Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson and a couple pit road snafus, Dale Earnhardt Jr. would likely have been celebrating his 20th career Sprint Cup victory and a dominant weekend at the Monster Mile.
Instead, Earnhardt settled for a second-place finish in Sunday's AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway, leaving somewhat dejected, but with a positive outlook for the remaining seven races and the knowledge that his equipment is plenty fast enough to get the job done.
"I'm just real disappointed," said Earnhardt, who had earned the pole after finishing sixth the previous week at Loudon, N.H. "We had an awesome car. These are two of the best cars I've had all year.
It's been more than a year and 48 starts since Earnhardt's last trip to Victory Lane, last June 17 at Michigan. His only victory in 28 career Cup starts at Dover came in 2001.
"In the last couple of weeks, we've been able to really show what our team is capable of," Earnhardt said. "We've been really quick on the sheet every day – fast in practice. The changes we're making seem to be working and we're going in the right direction. I feel like when we get it right, we can compete and we can win. We came really close today."
Earnhardt said he had no one to blame but himself for surrendering control of Sunday's race after leading 76 of the first 117 laps.
Attempting to pit under green at that point, he missed the commitment cone to pit lane and was forced to make an extra circuit of the one-mile oval. That miscalculation dropped him from first to eighth, 9.3 second behind Johnson.
"I take responsibility for getting a little too eager coming onto pit road for that green flag stop," Earnhardt said. "That track position is really important and I gave that up early in the race with that mistake coming onto pit road. It cost us a shot at the win."
On Lap 313 of 400, Earnhardt again was a bit slow in the pits, losing time behind Mark Martin on entry. Running second at the time, he dropped to fourth.
"The other pit stop wasn't as big a deal," Earnhardt said. "I came on pit road about as hard I could. Mark was running maybe 5-10 miles an hour slow in the first couple of segments (of the pit lane). I don't know if that cost us a ton of time."
In the end, those particular seconds might not have mattered as Johnson went on to lead 243 laps.
Even so, Johnson was very much aware of Earnhardt in his rearview mirror.
In fact, after a caution flag for debris with 29 laps to go prevented race leaders from requiring splash-and-go pit stops in the closing laps, a potentially game-changing decision by crew chief Steve Letarte gave Earnhardt one more shot at catching Johnson. While Johnson took only right-side tires, Earnhardt's team opted for four.
"I thought that four tires were going to be enough to get him, but he is just that fast around here," Earnhardt said. "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 restarted fourth, but quickly passed teammate Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth to provide Johnson's stiffest challenge.
"I had a fast enough car to get back to the leaders," said Earnhardt, a distant 10th in the point standings, 57 behind Matt Kenseth. "But you've got to be the leader on that last start. Most of these races are won by the guy leading it at the last restart or after the last round of pit stops. That wasn't us today."
Johnson knew he had his hands full.
"Junior drove a whale of a race. He kept me honest there at the end," Johnson said. "I saw him miss pit road early in the race. That couldn't have helped his overall cause. He finally got back up to the front and was awfully strong.
"I ran my guts out to stay ahead of him. Any switch that I could flip in the car – maybe a fan that could help turn my brake bias - anything I could turn, twist or pull I did. I just drove the heck out of the thing to be able to keep him at bay. That opening 10-12 laps (of the final run) was really a pressure-packed situation for me. At that point I was able to stretch (the lead) a little bit and get back to running a smart race."
With Earnhardt leading 80 laps and Gordon three, Hendrick Motorsports drivers set the pace for 326 of the 400 laps.
"Jimmie is so tough here, it's no surprise that he won," said Gordon, who vaulted three places in the standings and trails Kenseth by 39 points. "It was a great job by Junior, too. That was fun to watch."
Just not real fun for the driver who finished second.
"Real proud of the company," said Earnhardt, who has 16 top-10 finishes this season. "(But) we were going to have a helluva party if we could have got to (Johnson). ... I'll be honest with you: It sucks to lose, regardless of who wins."
By Seth Livingstone - Special to the NASCAR Wire Service