Dale Earnhardt Jr. was left with plenty to think about after the AAA 400.
Those in the stands at Dover International Speedway were on their feet. Heck, NASCAR Sprint Cup fans from coast to coast watching on television were up off their couches as well.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. stood poised to win the AAA 400. In the process, it seemed he might finally knock down a whole bunch of invisible barriers that seem to be preventing him from ever truly challenging for the championship in NASCAR's top national touring series.
A win for Junior is a win for all of "Junior Nation," the driver's seemingly unflappable, loyal fanbase that is second to none in motorsports.
Their patience and belief in their driver is legendary. They pull for him no matter what. They always believe the next win is right around the next left turn—when the facts speak so much to the contrary.
A win in the AAA 400 would have been Earnhardt's first in a Chase race since 2004, the first year NASCAR instituted the 10-race playoff-style system to determine its annual Cup champion. It would have been Earnhardt's first win in 48 races overall and his first win at a track located outside the state of Michigan in a whopping 295 races.
And with 26 laps to go, even after a day already filled with botched opportunities, he seemed poised to put all those morbid statistics in mothballs.
Alas, it didn't happen. Even with four fresh tires on his No. 88 Chevrolet going against the two that adorned the No. 48 Chevy of Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt could not run down his Hendrick Motorsports teammate over those final laps.
More than anything, Johnson showed, over that stretch, exactly why he's a five-time Cup champion now actively stalking title No. 6. That stretch also showed why Earnhardt is a good driver, but hardly a great one.
Yet there was more to Earnhardt's disappointing second-place finish than just that. Even all of Johnson's skill and the prowess of his crew chief, Chad Knaus, might not have been enough to hold off Earnhardt on this day. Junior had a car capable of winning if he himself hadn't made critical errors behind the wheel earlier in the race.
That Earnhardt's car was fast enough to contend for the win became evident when he won the pole for the race.
Although that doesn't always translate to the race for drivers, it appeared that would be the case for Earnhardt when he led for a stretch before running into trouble on a green-flag pit stop on Lap 117 of the 400-lap event, as noted in a tweet by Bob Pockrass of Sporting News.
Junior missed pit road first time and now down pit road. #nascar— Bob Pockrass (@bobpockrass) September 29, 2013
First, Earnhardt gave up the lead by slowing to come into pit road and missing the commitment cone, forcing him to come around again. Then, he slid through his pit box, costing him more valuable seconds that translated into lost track position.
Dale Jr. is now 8th. #nascar— Bob Pockrass (@bobpockrass) September 29, 2013
Give Earnhardt credit. It took him nearly 200 laps, but he drove back to the front and inherited the lead again for at least a few laps when Johnson made a green-flag pit stop on Lap 310.
But while Johnson's stop was flawless, Earnhardt appeared to err again while attempting to get to pit road for his stop a couple laps later. He got trapped behind Mark Martin's car after miscalculating his speed coming to the pit-road commitment cone, thus taking precious extra seconds to get to his pit stall.
Bottom line: After all the race cars cycled through that critical pit stop, Johnson came out the leader again and Earnhardt came out fourth.
After all that, Earnhardt and Co. were granted one final chance to get it right and get it done.
With 30 laps to go, the caution for debris came out, and Earnhardt crew chief Steve Letarte made the courageous call to go for four tires on the subsequent pit stop. The three drivers scored in front of Earnhardt at the time took two, and Junior quickly sped past them on the ensuing restart.
This was all duly noted by Jeff Gluck of USA Today.
Good lord...this is playing right into Dale Jr.'s hands, folks!— Jeff Gluck (@jeff_gluck) September 29, 2013
So there he sat on the comfortable cushion of four fresh Goodyear Eagles behind Johnson, whose left-side tires were worn thin. Twenty-six laps remained for Earnhardt to work his way around his teammate and into first.
When Junior got to Johnson's bumper within three laps, the pass seemed inevitable.
Don't look now, but Juuuuunnnnniiiior is tracking down leader Jimmie Johnson.— Stewart-Haas Racing (@StewartHaasRcng) September 29, 2013
But that was as close as Earnhardt could get to Victory Lane. By the time 10 laps remained, he had fallen more than a half-second behind Johnson. By the time Johnson took the white flag, signifying one lap remaining in the event, Earnhardt's runner-up destiny was cemented at the concrete "Monster Mile."
False alarm, Junior Nation: Jimmie Johnson wins his eighth Dover race. Dale Jr. is second.— Jeff Gluck (@jeff_gluck) September 29, 2013
To Earnhardt's credit, he did not mask his disappointment at the missed opportunity. He was, as he nearly always is, a stand-up guy when approached for a television interview immediately after the race.
Asked then if he thought the four fresh tires at the end would enable him to catch Johnson, a chagrined Earnhardt told reporters: "I really did. But Jimmie was just that fast. He's that good around this place. I really thought we might be able to get to him, and if I could get within reach I was going to do whatever I could to get the win. I just couldn't get to him."
In the end, it was simply another missed, broken-hearted opportunity for a popular race car driver who has to wonder how many more he and his loyal fanbase can endure.