With Dale Earnhardt Jr. sitting 35th in points heading into Las Vegas Motor Speedway, this was a race where he needed to finish well.
Earnhardt started the race off a little slow, just hanging around the top 20 for most of the race. Pit stop after pit stop they kept adjusting on the car, and got it running to his liking. Earnardt was happy with his car, and he was starting to run speeds close to the speeds of the cars in the top five.
As Earnhardt made his second-to-last pit stop, he pulled in to his pit stall. As the crew was just finishing with right side tires, teammate Jeff Gordon blew a tire that brought out a caution, biting the No. 88 team in the behind.
After slowly but surely working their way into the top 10, they were caught a lap down because of the caution.
On the restart, Earnhardt was placed at the tail end of the lead lap, in front of leader Kyle Busch. When the green flag finally dropped again he roared out in front of the field and finally showed the rest of the field the AMP sign on the back of his car.
The only problem, was he was on the tail end of the lead lap. Earnhardt was now running the fastest times on the track, and slowly but surely pulled away from Busch.
Earnhardt got the caution he needed, and was back behind the leader, ready to make a charge to receive a better finishing position. Before the race ended, he achieved his first top 10 of the year.
Who knows where he might have finished if the race was maybe 20 to 30 laps longer.
Maybe a top five?
That race gave Junior Nation some hope for the season. One thing I noticed different, was as the race went along the car got better and better towards the end—a task that the No. 88 team struggled with last year and cost them some races.
Now he is attempting to have another top 10 finish at Atlanta. Since 2004, Earnhardt has a win, 28th, third, 14th, and another third place finish at Atlanta.
Last year he felt like he would have won the race if the handling didn't fall off in the closing laps.
This is a race that Earnhardt needs to capitalize on to get him closer to the top 12 in the standings—and he has the car and equipment to do it.
Who knows, we might even see a re-run of 2004 when he dominated and won.
We shall see.
And for Junior Nation, we shall hope.