All weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, non-Chase for the Sprint Cup drivers made a statement, taking positions and points away from NASCAR's championship contenders.
Six potential spoilers qualified in the top 10 for the Sylvania 300. Although Dale Earnhardt Jr. qualified 32nd, he knew at the end of practice on Saturday that he too would figure into the mix on Sunday.
While Earnhardt didn't challenge for the point as Jamie McMurray was able to do before finishing third, the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team delivered its most consistent run of the season before posting a fourth-place finish.
Fifty laps into the race, Earnhardt had gained 20 positions from where he started despite suffering from a broken jack-stop -- the post that's welded to the bottom of the car where the jack lines up to lift the car to change the tires. He was running seventh when miscommunication with the No. 78 pit crew of Regan Smith cost Earnhardt valuable time as he was blocked in his pit stall on Lap 99.
"We were fast all weekend and we just needed to try not to make any mistakes to knock ourselves out of it during the race," he said. "We had a jack-stop broke on the left side. The guys had to kind of work around that all day long and not drop the car. Without the stop on it, it's a little tough. We had a little miscommunication in the pits with the car in front of us pitting while we were on pit road during a green flag that hurt us both really. Cost me about a half a lap. We just kind of battled back from there.
"We got the car a little bit off and then we got all the way back to where we needed to be at the end of the race. Just didn't have the track position. We were as good, obviously, as everybody in front of us. Maybe not better, but as good, good enough to win."
While Earnhardt felt he was "battling back from that half-a-lap all day long," he never gave up.
Perhaps the most dramatic difference throughout the course of the race was the calmness of the driver's demeanor through the adversity. Certainly, the 35-year-old has earned his share of criticism throughout the course of his career for maligning his crew chiefs over the radio. However, the confidence he gained from having a strong car allayed many of the issues that have distracted him behind the wheel in the past. With a track as temperature sensitive as New Hampshire, the No. 88 crew really stayed on top of the changes to keep Earnhardt's car neutral and the effort paid off.
"The guys did a good job," Earnhardt said. "We unloaded really good and worked on the car all weekend and during the race the car even improved. I just want to thank the team. We just tried to keep ourselves in contention."
And Earnhardt had the support of team owner Rick Hendrick and Vice President Doug Duchardt on his pit box throughout the entire race. Hendrick was pleased by the progress of the No. 88 team and Earnhardt.
"We needed this run," Hendrick said. "He drove a good race. Had he not been boxed into the pits, I think he would have been in the top five throughout the race. Hopefully, we can carry some good momentum into Dover."
With the Nos. 24 and 48 teams of Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson in Chase mode, Earnhardt said it was "all business" in his teammates' pits. The No. 88 pit box provided Hendrick with an alternative perch to enjoy the race. The driver was happy to deliver his boss the company's top finish.
"There's nothing he could do to help them and we were just out to raise a little hell and maybe he just thought that might be the place to be," Earnhardt said. "He had a good time too. We were lucky, we had a good run and I was glad we were able to run good with him on the box.
"I can't remember the last time we ran that good. I know I can drive well and I've been able to race well in my career and I know I've got talent, but the car was there (on Sunday). If I get a good car, I can do good things with it. As a company I think we've struggled here this year. We're just trying to get better as a company and I would trade with Jimmie or Jeff, any one of them boys for this finish because I just want to help them guys have a shot at the championship and give them an opportunity to win it. We don't want anybody else winning it."