With a second-place run at Martinsville, Dale Earnhardt Jr. moved up to eighth in Sprint Cup series points.
Junior's pairing with crew chief appears to be paying off. He has three top-10s in 2011 as well as the Daytona 500 pole. Junior is showing that he is ready to contend for the 2011 championship.
Or is he?
Junior nearly won the race at Martinsville. He pulled a bump-and-run on Kyle Busch to a rousing ovation and led 17 laps as the race neared its conclusion.
But then, Junior was passed by a hard-charging Kevin Harvick with a few laps to go.
Fans waited in breathless anticipation as Junior pulled a crossover move, getting to Harvick's inside.
Would he bump Harvick out of the way, as he had Kyle Busch just a few minutes earlier? Would he finally live up to the expectations his fans have always had for the son of the Intimidator?
Junior backed off, letting Harvick get away from him, and settled for a second-place finish.
After the race, Junior explained that he didn't want to be the bad guy.
Wait a minute.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been NASCAR's most popular driver for the last eight years. And he was worried about being the bad guy by racing hard for a win? Explain that one to me, please.
The bad guy on Sunday wasn't Dale Earnhardt Jr., not that it could have been, no matter what happened. No, the bad guy on Sunday was Kevin Harvick, who beat Junior and didn't care that he spoiled the day of millions of Junior fans.
Even Kyle Busch, a driver fans love to hate and who doesn't mind being the sport's bad boy, seemed hesitant to take on Junior, even after Junior bumped him out of the way to take the lead.
Can you imagine what Busch would have done if that other driver had been Kevin Harvick? Or Carl Edwards? Or his brother Kurt Busch? Or...ANYONE other than Dale Jr.?
But Kevin Harvick wasn't afraid to take on Junior, even knowing how unpopular his move would be.
Still, even after he was passed, Junior had a chance to take that lead right back.
He had a chance to break a winless streak that will reach 100 races next week at Texas.
He had a chance to provide a thrilling victory for his legions of fans, a victory that would have made national headlines.
But no, Dale Jr. didn't want to be the bad boy. He didn't want to play it rough. Instead, he settled for second place, letting a shot at victory slip through his grasp.
As Junior said, he wanted to get to Harvick's inside, but "not rough him up too much."
No matter that his father spent his entire life as the sport's bad boy en route to seven titles.
Dale Sr. would have gone for the win and been unapologetic, whether he had to spin another driver out to get the win or not.
For some reason, that's not who Junior wants to be. It never has been, and he's not going to change now.
For Junior to challenge for the championship, he's going to need to show more fire and more desire to get back to Victory Lane. I hope he can do it, both for his sake and for his long-suffering fans.
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