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.”