Almost tamed: Junior earns best career Darlington finish

Dale Earnhardt Jr. nearly scored the win in Saturday night's race at Darlington Raceway, but was forced to settle with second after a late-race pass by Kevin Harvick. 

Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images

The Hendrick Motorsports driver was a factor in the top 10 for the majority of the night, but really came to life in the closing laps of the race.

When race leader Jimmie Johnson opted for the outside line on the first attempt at a green-white-checkered finish, Kevin Harvick, who had the dominant car on the night, shoved Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 Chevrolet into the lead on the restart.

With a large gap between his car and the rest of the field, it looked as if the fan-favorite was on his way to his second victory of the 2014 season.

Instead, the caution flew yet again when Kurt Busch’s car hit the inside wall hard and bunched up the field for a second G-W-C attempt. Getting another solid jump, Earnhardt Jr. took the initial lead on the restart, but was unable to hold off Harvick’s hard charge on the top side coming to the white flag.

Finally Happy: Harvick ends slump with dominant Darlington win

As Harvick drove away with the win, Earnhardt Jr. was able to hold off fellow Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson to finish second.

Coming so close to victory, Earnhardt Jr. is not worried about what could have been if the final caution flag had not flown.

"Everybody was telling me that I had a 15-€‘car-€‘length lead, and I don’t want to hear about that," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I’m going to hear about it all day tomorrow, man; you almost won it. They said we had it won with a 15-€‘car-€‘length lead coming into that last white flag when the caution come out on the back straightaway. But I don’t know how good Kevin was. He was pretty fast. I think he was going to drive the (expletive) out of it and try to get there. I was trying not to look in the mirror, just try to run as hard as I could."

The runner-up finish was Earnhardt Jr.’s best finish in 20 races at the track ‘Too Tough to Tame.’ The two-time Daytona 500 champion admitted it was "a little disappointing" to come so close to a victory at one of his worst tracks.

"Running second is great but nobody is going to really remember that. But we’re proud of it," he said. "We’re proud of it. And Steve (Letarte, crew chief), I know he’s very proud. They did a great job giving me a really good car to be able to run that well here. The car was phenomenal. Really proud of those guys’ effort. Even though they know where my shortcomings are, they worked their guts out to try to get us the best."

With the schedule heading into the Easter break, Earnhardt Jr. sits fourth in the standings as one of the consistently strong cars week-in and week-out. The No. 88 team has finished in the top three in five of the first eight races.

However, Earnhardt Jr. knows the No. 88 team cannot rest on its laurels.

"We just need to look at our competition, try to understand what we’re seeing and where are some areas where we can improve," he said. "There’s some spots where we can improve and get better, but we run second at one of our worst tracks tonight, so our performance is there. We’ve got the cars — we seem to be on the leading edge of trying to learn these new rules and trying to understand what’s going on. A lot of guys middle of the pack are scrambling with their setups. We seem to be on a path and setting a pattern with what we’re doing, and it seems to be working."

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