Dale Earnhardt Jr. watches qualifying for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup series auto race, Friday, Sept. 27, 2013, at Dover International Speedway in Dover, Del. Earnhardt won the pole. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
DOVER, Del. — There wasn’t much more Dale Earnhardt Jr. could do.
He set a Dover International Speedway track record in winning the pole for last Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup AAA 400. He led a season-best 80 laps in the race.
But all it could get him was a second-place finish to Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson and more frustration in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, which comes to Kansas Speedway this weekend.
Earnhardt’s third runner-up finish of the season — he was second to Johnson in the Daytona 500 and second to Kyle Busch at Auto Club Speedway in California — left him a distant 10th in the Chase, an improvement of one position.
“It’s probably harder to run second than it is fifth or 10th,” said a frustrated Earnhardt, who has now gone 48 straight races without a win, dating to Michigan in 2012.
“We came really close . . . I don’t feel like it was a highlight for us. I think this is how it’s supposed to be every week. I know that competition’s difficult and tough, Jimmie being one of the best drivers the sport has ever seen. Running at one of his better racetracks, it was going to be a challenge. But I felt like we had enough car and tires for sure to beat him.”
Earnhardt, who began the Chase seeded ninth, got off to rough start when he blew an engine at Chicago and finished 35th, dropping him to 13th. But he rallied with a sixth-place finish at Loudon and was poised to make a run at the Chase leaders after winning the pole at Dover.
“In the last couple of weeks, we’ve been able to really show what our team’s capable of,” Earnhardt said. “We’ve been really quick on the sheet every day, fast in practice. The changes we’re making, everything seems to be working right, going in the direction you want. I feel like when we get it right, we can compete and we can win.”
There was little consolation to Earnhardt that he lost to Johnson, not points-leader Kenseth, who finished sixth, or Busch, who dropped to third in the standings despite a fifth-place finish.
“I’ll be honest with you, it (stinks) to lose regardless of who wins,” Earnhardt said with a smile. “When you have a car like we had today, you don’t get good cars every week, you like to capitalize.
“It doesn’t bother me that it was Jimmie. I know Jimmie is going to be good here. Plus he’s my teammate. I want to see him do well. When he does well, it indirectly affects us and benefits us. I wasn’t hoping he was going to blow a tire or anything there at the end, I was just trying to catch him. If I could get to him, I thought I would be able to get by him. We just couldn’t do it.”
Earnhardt could blame himself a bit for his inability to pull off the elusive victory. He had a couple of miscues on pit road which cost him valuable seconds and track position.
“I take responsibility for getting a little too eager coming onto pit road for a green flag stop,” he said. “We’re lucky we didn’t have more trouble . . . I didn’t know what the heck the rules are for that, so I was figuring we got off pretty light.
“I had a fast enough car to get back to the leaders, but you’ve got to be the leader on that last re-start. You see most of these races are won by the guy leading it at the last restart or after the last round of pit stops. I’ll take responsibility for that mess-up coming on pit road for sure.”
Even had Earnhardt beaten Johnson, he’d have moved up only to ninth place and still would have been a distant 54 points behind Kenseth. So while the Chase might be over for Junior, he’s not giving up on winning at least once this season and improving on his finishes of seventh in 2011 and 12th last season, when he missed two races because of a concussion.
“We are not really going to count points, and I’m not going to sit here and figure out how far I’m behind and come up with some equation that I need to perfect to gain points each week,” Earnhardt said. “We are just going to show up and try to run hard and be smart.
“I would be really disappointed if we don’t win a race this season because I think we are a better team than we were last year. I felt we’ve came so close so many times so we would just like to get out there and get some trophies.”
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