MARTINSVILLE, Va._ For a moment, it appeared all was right in the NASCAR world.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. had just pulled a bump-and-run move on Kyle Busch to take the lead with 20 laps to go and the fans were on their feet at Martinsville Speedway cheering him on wildly.
Junior Nation was about to see their driver break a 98-race winless streak, beating Busch to do so nonetheless.
Then came the black No. 29 of Kevin Harvick.
Spoiling the day for Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch one week ago in Fontana, Harvick closed on the bumper of Earnhardt Jr. as the laps clicked away. Then, with three laps to go, Harvick made his move to the bottom and held off Earnhardt’s cross-over move exiting the corner. Driving away from the No. 88, Harvick scored his second-straight win and crushed the hopes of Junior Nation in the process.
Circling the track in reverse waving to the crowd after his victory, Harvick received a mix of applause and middle finger salutes from the faithful assembled in the stands.
“I could see the people just going crazy coming off turn two when [Earnhardt Jr.] took the lead from Kyle,” Harvick said. “I was catching him and I’m like, ‘man, I’m going to be the bad guy here.’ But I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do.”
Sensing the crowd reaction from inside the car, Earnhardt Jr. was doing all he could to snap his winless streak and put the No. 88 back in Victory Lane for the first time since Michigan in June 2008.
“I was thinking at the end that I was meant to win that damn race,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Hell, I'm not sitting there leading that thing by seven car lengths thinking I'm about to lose. That's definitely not a good attitude to have at that point.
“I was definitely thinking I need to do what I think's right every corner and try and win this race,” he said. “I've got a hell of an opportunity right here and if I can put together decent laps, I might be able to keep the distance I had on him which was only about three or four car lengths. But I just couldn't do it. I made some mistakes in the corners and the back end of the car was giving up on me a little bit.”
Missing out on the win, Earnhardt Jr.’s winless streak now stands at 99 races. With such a large following and huge amount of pressure on his shoulders, Earnhardt Jr. has often been criticized for his poor performances, lack of communication and overall struggles. Yet, when that No. 88 car knocked Busch out of the way for the lead late in the race, the entire venue nearly exploded.
“I know the fans want to see him win,” said Harvick. “I want to see him win. I want to see Dale Jr. win. It would be great for the sport and I think today went a long ways to showing how competitive that they can be racing for wins, and that’s what we needed. We all need him to win, but [I’m] not going to back down.”
“We all want to see Dale Jr. win a race,” Richard Childress, Harvick’s team owner, said. “If one of our four cars can’t win, I’d like to see him win. But you don’t want to let him win at your expense, and Kevin had to do what he had to do right there at the end and I was proud of him.
“Dale Jr. will win races. He will come back,” Childress said. “We 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. But, like I say, we did what we had to do and that was win the race.”
While Earnhardt Jr. was unable to seal the deal and take home the famous grandfather clock trophy, the visible improvement was a further step in the right direction. Working with new crew chief Steve Letarte, Earnhardt has finished in the top 12 in five of the last six races (he was 24th in Daytona).
Sunday’s finish moved him to eighth in the standings, 20 points behind series leader Kyle Busch, yet that did little to comfort his disappointment in missing out on the win.
“I'll probably think about it a million times what I probably could have done differently,” said Earnhardt Jr. “I should be thankful and grateful that I had the opportunity I had today and for the opportunity I got to work with the team I'm with and to even be here competing, and take this momentum and take what looks like to be a better start to the season than I've had in a while to the next racetrack and just keep trying to plug away.
“We gained a lot of points on some guys that were around us today,” he said. “The 4 (Kasey Kahne) and the 56 (Martin Truex Jr.) had some trouble. We just need to try to put some distance on some guys and get ourselves the opportunity to be in the Chase when the time is up. Steve is a good crew chief and he's going to give me more opportunities like this I feel.”
Harvick may have ruined the perfect day for the Earnhardt faithful Sunday in Martinsville, but the marked improvement for Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 88 team have shown they are not far off. However, Earnhardt Jr. has yet to prove he is “back.”
“I'll let you know when I feel like I'm back, personally,” he said. “Anyone that watched that race today knows that we weren't a second place race car or even a third place race car all day. We never were up there to prove that point. So there's no argument. We got some work to do still, and you know, we are faster, we are more competitive than last year. But we are still – we still got a little ways to go.”
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