The race may have ended, but as Dale Earnhardt, Jr. sat in the Media Center, he talked faster than when speeding down the straightaway at Martinsville five minutes earlier. His mind raced literally a million miles a minute, reporters along for the ride while a candid, public questioning game of “What If?” took center stage. As if both sides were best friends catching up, a man’s sense of regret flowed freely in front of strangers, rough reaction that could only be spurred by watching the lottery prize of a first victory since June, 2008 disappear despite his best efforts to cash the ticket.
“I was thinking at the end I was meant to win that damn race,” he said, placed in position by crew chief Steve Letarte but maneuvering into the lead with his own, old school bump ‘n’ run on Kyle Busch before Kevin Harvick came calling. “I was thinking I’ve got a hell of an opportunity and if I can keep the distance I had on [Harvick] which was only about three or four car lengths.”
“But I just couldn’t do it. I made some mistakes… I didn’t adjust my driving, whatever I needed to do to find the speed in the car.”
That left a tough pill to swallow out in the open; a fleeting moment ruined where it appeared Earnhardt’s 98-race winless streak was over. As the laps counted down – ten, nine, eight, seven – the crowd was on the verge of riot status as they sensed the potential Martinsville memory unfolding, watching Busch fade quietly into the No. 88’s rear-view mirror at every turn. For Harvick to charge to second then both catch and pass his rival under the circumstances was cruel and unusual punishment, like calling off the wedding just moments before the church music starts.
“I’m going to be the bad guy here,” he admitted after the race. “But I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do. I want to see Dale Junior win. It would be great for the sport.”
“Dale Jr. will win races,” added Harvick’s owner Richard Childress, all but apologetic despite earning a victory. “He will come back.”
“We [RCR] have been in that situation. We have had a long dry spell, so I know what it meant if he could have won that race.”
And so it continued, a chorus of comments seemingly with a common goal in mind for Earnhardt: reminding him the glass was half-full. From crew chief Steve Letarte with a character-building message (“Second. We’re gaining on it, man, we’re gaining on it,” he said afterwards) to owner Rick Hendrick, who hopped on and congratulated his wheelman on the radio NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver had a sympathetic ear everywhere he turned once the checkers flew.
Some might say that’s overboard; it’s not like Kyle Busch will get a pile full of Hallmark cards this week for finishing third. But in this case, this driver has a different style, one that must get treated with kid gloves. The possible fallout here is extreme, those close to Earnhardt understanding a man whose confidence has suffered after years of subpar performances. When you’re down and out, it’s ten times easier to focus on the negative rather than put the “oh so close” endings in perspective.
“If I know what’s best for me, I should probably have a good attitude about what happened today,” he said out loud later, as if to convince himself it’s true. “Go into the next race and use [a second-place finish] as momentum and confidence, like any other good driver would do, instead of worrying about, you know, how close we came. I should take what looks like to be a better start to the season than I’ve had in awhile to the next racetrack and just keep trying to plug away.”
To do so is easier said than done, although for motivation he won’t have to look far inside the Hendrick shop. His trio of teammates, while finishing in the top-11 could have all spent their post-race wondering how they could have done better.
There was the case of Jeff Gordon, leading three times for 37 laps until the 11th and final caution left him caught on pit road. Losing track position, the final 29 laps became a battle simply to work up from ninth place to finish inside the top-5. A seven-time Martinsville winner, the No. 24 team could have left the day bitter.
Not a chance.
“That caution got us behind,” he said before expressing what Earnhardt should take from this race: optimism. “I thought it was an awesome day to drive up to fifth there at the end.”
Further back was Mark Martin, tenth after an uncharacteristic penalty for passing on a Lap 181 restart. That could have ended his afternoon, leaving the No. 5 Chevy a lap off the pace; instead, the driver apologized, crew chief Lance McGrew strategized (using the wave around) and by the end of the day last fall’s runner-up finisher at this paperclip had salvaged something. For the 52-year-old, who’s had more bad luck than most do in three lifetimes he’s an expert at making the most of it with a style of steady leadership, building confidence by never getting too emotional.
And then, there’s Jimmie Johnson, rounding out the tragic quartet with an 11th-place disappointment. Second at the time of the final caution he was 11th, out of contention with 25 to go after getting caught speeding entering pit road. Crew chief Chad Knaus immediately spouted off cryptically on the radio, telling Johnson, “They’re [just] ticked off because … you know why.”
After the race, J.J. was on the same page of angry rhetoric. “They didn’t like how it looked,” he said pointedly, accusing NASCAR of targeting him. “The way I managed my timing lines.” On his Twitter feed, he challenged officials to publicize pit road speeds after every stop.
Yet observers know frustration can fuel the No. 48, in a similar way as Mike Ford criticizing their pit crew swapping at Texas last November. Two weeks later, it was Johnson and Co. sitting with a championship trophy while Ford was fumbling for words on how his driver, Denny Hamlin, finished second.
Never-ending optimism, staying the course, using adversity as fuel for the fire: different styles work for different people. Steve Letarte’s challenge going forward now – just six races into a career as Dale Jr.’s pit box lackey – is to find one that’ll work for Earnhardt. The rest of Hendrick knows with certainty how to capitalize on these character-building efforts, making this weekend a possible turning point for each team. As for Earnhardt? He’s spent the better part of three years finding his way with little to show for it. Recovery is never guaranteed from rock bottom … no matter what gets said in the heat of the moment.
“I’m really thrilled,” Earnhardt said emphatically while ending his press conference. “I know it don’t look like it, but I’ve got such a hell of an opportunity. This is such a great group to be around, and I’m having fun. I’m racing cars… it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. I’ll talk to Steve and if I have any doubts or regrets or problems with losing the race today, I’ll clear that all up with him and we’ll be … on the same page, so we can focus on the next one.”
And with that, Sunday’s game of “What If?” was swept under the rug. Now, Monday morning begins a new education for Earnhardt: making sure it stays there.