On television after his eighth-place finish at Pocono, Dale Earnhardt Jr. seemed at a loss for words.
He tried to put sentences together but he couldn’t. He asked if he could start over. And he did.
He seemed to be very disappointed and frustrated. The look in his face was one of bewilderment, as if he could not fathom how he lost a race he could have easily won – again.
It was widely reported that Earnhardt Jr. appeared out of sorts because he was distracted by a nearby incident that involved one of his people.
To be honest here’s no reason to doubt the veracity of the report.
But, undoubtedly, Earnhardt Jr. was frustrated. The look was unmistakable. And perhaps he was much more upset at Pocono than virtually anywhere else this season.
“I didn’t know the caution flags were going to be so long,” Earnhardt said softly. “And they were long enough to help them guys make it on fuel.
“We’re not taking those kinds of chances – just yet.”
And that was the end of his TV interview.
What happened for Earnhardt Jr. at Pocono was a series of events, some unexpected, that ultimately foiled the opportunity for him to win his first race since 2008 – 143 races ago.
At Pocono Earnhardt Jr. led 36 laps, second only to race winner Joey Logano, who led 48.
On the 138th of the race’s 160 laps, the sixth caution period began after Kasey Kahne hit the wall in the second turn.
Earnhardt Jr., along with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, pitted for fuel.
Logano stayed on the track, as did Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin and Mark Martin.
After refueling Earnhardt Jr. was relieved and confident. Even though he was back in 16th place, he knew he had a good chance. He could now race his way to the finish unimpeded.
But what normally would have been a short caution period was extended lap by lap as crews cleaned up debris left by Kahne’s mishap.
With each additional caution lap those ahead of Earnhardt Jr. gained an edge. Because they were not at speed, they saved fuel – perhaps enough to complete the race.
Finally, six laps after it began, the caution period ended.
As did Earnhardt Jr.’s hopes, which were dashed further when another caution period began on lap 150, for debris, that lasted two laps.
Despite a charge that propelled him from 16th place into the top 10 in just three laps, Earnhardt Jr. could do no better than eighth place at race’s end.
It was a good effort. It was impressive.
But it wasn’t what it could have been.
Which is why Earnhardt Jr. said: “I didn’t know the caution flags were going to be so long. And they were long enough to help them guys make it on fuel.”
Maybe the fuel strategy at Pocono did not work out as Earnhardt Jr. had hoped, but he admitted it was better than running out of gas, which would have created far more damage.
“I ran out of gas here one year and that pisses me off so bad that it’s just hard to recover from it, mentally, you know,” he said. “There’s just no excuse for running out of gas. You put fuel in and you go run, like we did today.
“But I like the call we made. We raced back to eighth and didn’t win the race. We might not have won the race. We might have run third, I don’t know.
“But it was the right call for us at this time.”
Points-wise, Pocono was, certainly, far from a disaster for Earnhardt Jr. It was his 11th finish among the top 10 in 14 races. That consistency is the biggest reason he has settled into second place in points, just 10 behind new leader Matt Kenseth.
Earnhardt Jr. hasn’t ranked this high in points since he led in 2004.
In fact, his performance this season has been his best in years. But he hasn’t won and with each passing week the question is repeated: When will Earnhardt Jr. win?
What have largely disappeared are questions about Earnhardt Jr.’s ability and confidence.
Certainly Earnhardt Jr. is confident as the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule rolls into the summer months – which traditionally have been unproductive for the Hendrick driver.
But they have started well. Earnhardt Jr. was fourth at Dover and he earned his third consecutive top 10 at Pocono, not one of his best tracks.
“Dover is where I usually start to head south,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “But now, it’s been nice to run good.
“Our team is strong. We’ve really been strong all year. I expect it to keep going. I’d be terribly disappointed if we don’t exchange a run like this at all the ovals.”
To maintain his lofty status Earnhardt Jr. will have to perform well in the coming weeks. He was third in points last year at this point and fell to ninth by the time the schedule moved to Watkins Glen in mid-August.
Next up is Michigan this weekend, where Earnhardt Jr. has finished among the top 10 only twice since his victory there in 2008 – yes, 143 races ago.
But repaving has made the two-mile Michigan layout a different animal.
“Knowing how the repave and some other things might be there as they were at Pocono, I feel good about going to Michigan,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “We’re going to test for a day up there.
“We learned a lot during the five days we were at Pocono and hopefully we can go to Michigan with some of the stuff we’ve learned and have a strong car.”
If that turns out to be the case, it will further cement the belief that as long as Earnhardt Jr. and his Hendrick team perform at the level they have, a victory is inevitable.
It’s likely Earnhardt Jr. thinks it should have been attained at Pocono.
“I was the funnest car I’ve had all year and the best car I’ve had at Pocono for a long, long time,” he said. “So I’m just really trying not to be too upset about it.
“We did a got of good things. And we’ve got a lot to look forward to.”