Pit road problems hamper runner-up Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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With finishes of sixth and second in the last two Chase races, Dale Earnhardt Jr. appears to have put the blown engine he sustained in the post-season opener at Chicagoland behind him. But the Hendrick Motorsports driver was still frustrated about coming up just short to teammate Jimmie Johnson in the final laps today at Dover International Speedway.

Two mishaps in the pits during the AAA 400 didn’t do anything to help him, either. On Lap 117, Earnhardt was leading the race by almost four seconds but missed the entrance to pit road under green and was forced to roll around the Monster Mile one more time. The sequence wound up knocking him back to eighth.

Later on, Earnhardt inherited the lead from Johnson with 90 laps remaining in the 400-lap event. But when he ducked in for service three laps later, he was forced to slow down for Mark Martin, who was also making his way to the pits. When the cycle of stops ended, he had been shuffled to fourth.

To Earnhardt, however, it was the earlier incident that played the bigger role in why he was unable to win.

“If you really look at the race as a whole, they did cost us a little bit, at least the mistake I made missing pit road completely,” he said. “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.

“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. I think missing the commitment cone was a big factor in us not finishing one spot ahead of where we are.”

Earnhardt was still able to jump to second off the final restart with 26 laps left after pitting under yellow for four tires. But it was not enough to beat Johnson, who managed to win after taking two tires on his last stop.

In Earnhardt’s mind, he simply ran out of time.

“I felt like as we got the [lapped] traffic, Jimmie was starting to struggle a little bit in the last couple of laps,” he said. “My car actually got better the longer I ran and drove better, did what I needed it to do in the corner as we ran.

“It wasn’t quite clicking just yet. Our car was starting to come around. I think the difference in the tires between our two cars was about to show. But the race is 400 laps. That’s the way it is. They did a good job.”

Ricciardo set to see Dale Jr.’s final Texas ride in two weeks (VIDEO)

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We’ve written before about Daniel Ricciardo’s love of Dale Earnhardt and his love of the No. 3, which Ricciardo has selected as his permanent number for the duration of his Formula 1 career. And additionally, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has offered up the opportunity that one day Ricciardo could race a JR Motorsports car in NASCAR Xfinity Series competition, and Ricciardo has said he’d be up for it.

And although Earnhardt Jr. has only used the No. 3 on a handful of occasions in his career in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Ricciardo knows how much the number means to the NASCAR veteran as he prepares for his final few starts in the Cup Series the tail-end of this year.

After the Mexican Grand Prix next week, Ricciardo is set to stay in North America for the off-week between the Mexican and Brazilian Grands Prix.

In that break, he said he’ll see Earnhardt Jr. in person at the Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway (Sunday, Nov. 5, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN) to ensure he gets to see him before he retires from full-time competition.

Ricciardo explained his planning during Thursday’s pre-race edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass, speaking to NBCSN’s Will Buxton at the United States Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas in Austin.

“Well I’ll see him for the first time in Dallas. I’m gonna go to the NASCAR race in two weeks time at Texas Motor Speedway,” Ricciardo told NBCSN.

“Yeah, so, I gotta see him race before he hangs up the helmet.

“The Earnhardt family is a huge name in motorsport, not only in America but all over the world. Yeah I wish him well.”

Ricciardo is also optimistic he’ll get the chance to do a helmet swap with Earnhardt Jr. at the event.

“Hopefully I get to see him perform well in Texas. I’m gonna try to do a helmet swap with him. We’ll see how we go.”

Stay tuned for more on this over the coming weeks.