Dale Earnhardt Jr. was one second – and one spot – from ending a winless streak that is approaching four years.
After the final caution of Saturday night’s Capital City 400 put a new spin on the front of the pack, boosting Kyle Busch into the lead and frustrating previous leader Tony Stewart, Earnhardt Jr. rolled into position to shoot for an upset win.
He took second away from Stewart on the last restart with eight laps to go and targeted Busch, the leader. Junior made slight gains over the closing laps but couldn’t move into a challenging position. He finished second, 1.095 seconds behind Busch.
Thus the hunt for the win that will end Junior’s streak – and the victory that will be team owner Rick Hendrick’s 200th – continues.
Earnhardt Jr. wrestled with brake issues part of the evening and said he had no brakes as he chased Busch over the final laps. He didn’t use that as an excuse for missing victory lane, however.
“If the car was faster than the 18 (Busch), we would have got there to him and maybe we'd raced for it, but the brake problems weren't that bad,” he said. “I just chose a different master cylinder (which provides the pressure that engages the brakes) at Martinsville, and I shouldn't have brought it here. I just shouldn't have done that because I know better, and these cars are going too fast in the corner running that kind of master cylinder. I learned a lesson, and we'll have an idea what to use when we come back.”
Although all of Junior Nation yearns for the breakthrough victory, Earnhardt Jr. said he was “really happy to come home with second. We were running about fifth all night and just got lucky on that restart to be on the inside and get a couple spots. We just kind of got lucky there at the end on a couple things to gain a couple extra spots. But we ran good.
“We were terrible last year at this track, and I really like running here, and I just was curious as to why we weren't performing as well. So it feels good to run all right here.”
But Junior said there probably won’t be carry-over to Talladega next week.
“I don't think momentum is a real thing,” he said. “The team is confident, we're feeling good. We feel like we're competing well. Really close to winning a race. We haven’t really raced for a win yet and lost one, so I wouldn't count tonight.
“But we're getting better at running the top fives and top 10s. We'll just try to keep doing that. There's too many variables going into races at Talladega whether you feel confident winning or not. There's just too much going on there.”
Junior, in second in points, trails leader Greg Biffle by only five.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.