CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. chased Jimmie Johnson around Dover International Speedway, only to see his teammate grab his record-setting eighth victory at the Monster Mile.
Earnhardt settled for second, his winless streak swelling to 48 races. For those keeping track, that’s just two wins in the 207 races since Earnhardt joined Johnson at Hendrick Motorsports in 2008.
So as Johnson grabbed that milestone victory, pulling within eight points of leader Matt Kenseth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, more than one skeptical fan wondered if Earnhardt had given less than 100 percent in the closing laps to allow his teammate to win.
Not a chance.
Disappointment oozed from Earnhardt immediately after the race. It was in his voice as he crossed the finish line, and he sounded deflated as he radioed the No. 88 team.
“He’s just so damn fast around here. I don’t know what else I could have done,” Earnhardt said. “I hate losing ‘em like that.”
He doesn’t get many chances like he had Sunday.
Prior to Sunday, he’d led only 165 laps this season and had just five other top-five finishes.
But at Dover, crew chief Steve Letarte gave him a fast Chevrolet from the very start: Earnhardt was the surprising pole-winner and was in control the first half of the race. Earnhardt led 80 laps at Dover and clearly had a car capable of winning.
Then came his own error — one that cost him dearly.
Earnhardt was headed to pit road for a routine stop under green when he missed the commitment cone to pit lane, and was unable to make his scheduled stop. He had to take an extra lap around the track, and the miscalculation dropped him from first to eighth, a whopping 9.3 seconds behind Johnson.
“We had the lead, gave up the lead. Jimmie had the lead and was able to take advantage of that clean air when it counted,” Earnhardt lamented. “If I had not given up that track position, had a smart enough race to keep the lead when it counted right at the end, we might have won the race. It would have been hard to get by us, just like it was to get by Jimmie.”