Hendrick Motorsports dominated the Monster Mile on Sunday, with Jimmie Johnson rising victorious over second-place Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The two Chevys led 323 of 400 laps at Dover International Speedway. With Johnson in the lead for the final restart after a two-tire stop, it was easy for the No. 48 Chevy to stay in front over the remaining 25 laps.
“When they (No. 88) lined up right behind me, I thought I was going to have my hands full — and I really did,” Johnson said. “Junior drove a whale of a race, and track position really gave me the advantage I needed to hold him off.”
Earnhardt appeared to have a race-winning car. He restarted fourth on four tires and moved up to challenge Johnson one lap later.
“We were going to have a hell of a party if we could get to him,” Earnhardt said. “It was still (a good) call. With two tires, we were still going to be one gun short in the battle. Jimmie just had that good of a car. He had the track position that we needed — that we had at the start of the race before I screwed up on pit road and let them all in front of us.”
Unfortunately, it was the problem in the pits that hampered NASCAR’s most popular driver’s opportunity of breaking his 48-race winless streak. And for Junior, it stung worse that the issue was self-induced. On Lap 117, Earnhardt had extended his lead to four seconds when crew chief Steve Letarte reminded him to be careful with the pit road entry, then called for him to pit.
Earnhardt couldn’t slow down quickly enough to get all four tires below the commitment line. He was forced to abort his entry and take another lap. The mistake cost Earnhardt the lead, seven positions and 14 seconds on Johnson.
“I was trying to get in there too hard and just didn’t have my head on me straight trying to get onto pit road,” Earnhardt told FOXSports.com. “That was my fault.”
Could the error have been triggered by the mere excitement of having the fastest car on the track?
“Being overexcited, ya think? I’m really always cautious and extra careful coming on to pit road,” Earnhardt said. “So maybe I was a little too anxious at that particular time but we had a great car — two weeks in a row we’ve had the best two cars I’ve had all season. We’re peaking at the right time.”
With Earnhardt’s engine failure in the Chase for the Sprint Cup opener at Chicagoland Speedway, the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team has been battling a 53-point deficit from that first race that mired him 12th in the points standings. A sixth-place result last week at New Hampshire Motor Speedway elevated Earnhardt two positions, but his runner-up spot on Sunday didn’t move the needle. Earnhardt remains 10th in the standings, 57 points behind leader Matt Kenseth, who finished seventh.
Earlier this year, Earnhardt and his team appeared to be contenders. They led the points standings five races into the season and remained in the top five for most of the first 26 events. As solid as Earnhardt’s car was throughout the weekend at Dover, finishing second was hard to swallow.
“I’ll just replay every lap in my head for a long time trying to figure out how I could’ve won — should’ve won,” Earnhardt said. “Thinking I should’ve won, I feel like I should’ve won. Jimmie was pretty dang fast. We left everyone else behind us. But four tires should have beat two.”
Still, Junior is encouraged by the cars he drives each weekend.
“Whatever they’re doing in the shop, they’re doing it right," he said. "When they give us cars that are this good, man, it makes everything so easy and gives me so much confidence.”
Although it might be difficult catching his teammate Johnson — and the Joe Gibbs Racing cars of Kenseth and Kyle Busch — over the last seven races, when a team improves this much down the stretch it would be foolish not to consider the No. 88 team as a contender in 2014.