With the memory of his highly disappointing Daytona 500 outcome all too fresh, Dale Earnhardt Jr. arrived at Atlanta Motor Speedway on a mission to leave with a strong result.
After qualifying 16th and spending most of Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 just inside or outside of the top five, Earnhardt finished second after picking off four spots on the final restart with two laps to go.
It was a great way for NASCAR’s 13-time most popular driver to move completely beyond Daytona, where he performed stellar for most of Speedweeks but crashed late in the 500 when his No. 88 car broke free after experiencing handling difficulties for much of the race.
So how big was Sunday’s runner-up finish at Atlanta for the third-generation driver?
"I feel like for me personally it was great because of how we did last week in Daytona," said Earnhardt, who finished second behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson. "It was critical for us to rebound. Two terrible finishes in a row would put us in such a deep hole points-wise, and what if we could struggle through the year and come close but not win any races? We don’t need to cut it close on points.
"I know we really don’t worry about points racing anymore, but when you start the year with two bad runs, you start counting points."
Greg Ives, Earnhardt’s second-year crew chief, was likewise relieved to come out of Atlanta and head to next weekend’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on a positive note.
"We all stayed calm," Ives told FOXSports.com after Sunday’s race. "We communicated well. The pit crew did a great job of just staying solid, Dale as well, knowing when to save tires and when to go. I think those are the parts that we’ve got to take from it.
"Obviously we want to win, we want to be one spot better, but it’s nice to come out here and to know that our intermediate (track) stuff is close and that we can move on to Vegas and not have to reload."
As for the extra importance that their Daytona 500 finish put on this weekend, Ives played coy.
"What race is that? Oh I don’t remember last week," he said. "I’m going to be moving on to Vegas here in less than 24 hours. You can’t sit on disappointment. Otherwise you’re just going to wallow in your sorrows. We came out after the Daytona 500 excited about getting here, nervously excited, too, with a new (rules) package and everything, new tires, just seeing how it was all going to play out.
"We unloaded with great speed, not great balance, on Friday and that kind of proved in our qualifying — we didn’t have the balance we needed to keep the speed in it, but Saturday and Sunday here the engineers and Dale and I and all the team did a great job getting every little bit out of this car."