When the sandy South Carolina dust settled late Saturday night in Darlington County, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was left one spot short of his first NASCAR Sprint Cup series win at the famed Lady in Black. It wasn’t from lack of trying. Earnhardt led on a final overtime green-white-checkered flag restart up until the white flag when a hard charging Kevin Harvick, who had been the class of the field for 500 miles, rocketed past and onto victory.
After starting 15th, Earnhardt quickly made his way into the top 10 and soon the top five. By the closing laps, Earnhardt was looking for his first win in 20 starts. When the tenth caution set up a green-white-checkered flag period Earnhardt and teammate Jimmie Johnson both took two tires while most others, including Harvick took four. Johnson was able to win the race off pit road, Earnhardt was second. On the restart Johnson took the high side, Earnhardt the inside.
“The outside line was real bad about spinning the tires, and Jimmie hadn't been up there and didn't really know that,” Earnhardt said. “He chose the outside on them restarts and I knew I had a great shot at getting the lead from him. We got going, he spun his tires real bad, the 4 (Harvick ) got to pushing me a little bit and we got the lead, and that felt pretty good leading the race.”
His good feeling didn’t last long. Before he could take the white flag, Kurt Busch and Clint Bowyer tangled sending Busch spinning into the inside SAFER barrier along the backstretch. The caution flew and another green-white-checkered flag finish ensued.
On the restart Earnhardt was able to hold off Harvick as the two separated from the field. Coming to the white flag though, Harvick was able to squeeze by on the exit of turn four and to the lead. From that point he began to stretch his lead out and went on to win by a half second.
“The 4 (Harvick) just had new tires,” Earnhardt said. “We had 30‑something laps on our left, and it just wasn't going to get the job done with him right there on us.”
Earnhardt was still able to hold on first second, a career best finish at Darlington.
“It's a little disappointing to come that close,” Earnhardt said. “I know I don't really run that well here and the opportunities to win are going to be very few compared to other tracks. It hurts a little bit to come that close because we worked so hard to try to win races. Running second is great but nobody is going to really remember that. But we're proud of it. “
Earnhardt took some consolation in losing; especially after crashing out at Texas the week prior and finishing 43rd.
“If you scratch Texas off the map, that's how good we are,” he said. “We were running that good the first two or three races. I think this is as good as this team has ever been. We've got areas where we can probably get a little better, but we're really right there.”
With the Sprint Cup series taking a week off, Earnhardt said he and his Hendrick Motorsports team can take time to assess where they are at so far in the 2014 season.
“I think we've really got some great performance for our team,” Earnhardt said. “There are 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 set ups. We seem to be on a path and setting a pattern with what we're doing, and it seems to be working.”