Motor Mouth: The emotions of a win that almost was

Dale Earnhardt Jr. pits at Martinsville. (Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images for NASCAR)


It’s what NASCAR fans want to see from their drivers. In a sport fueled by passion, they want to hear what a driver has to say. They want to know what it felt like for a driver to have victory in their grasp … and what it was like to have it snatched away. For the fans, it’s not about a good points day - it’s about the thrill of victory and the sting of defeat.

And this season, the drivers aren’t sugarcoating it. For as tough as Tony Stewart is, he was close to tears after Las Vegas, saying he gave the win away and that “second sucks.” Jimmie Johnson said finishing second at Auto Club Speedway, a track where he has dominated, was like “kissing your sister.” At Martinsville, a frustrated Kyle Busch, who was passed while leading the race in the closing laps for the second week in a row, said his status as points leader “doesn’t matter” as much as having the win.

The new points system does not reward wins as much as I personally would have liked. But to these drivers, the numbers don’t matter: a win is a win. And winning is everything.

Just ask Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The sport’s most popular driver, Junior was staring down a 98-race winless streak heading into Martinsville.

The pressure has only continued to mount for the son of the legendary Dale Earnhardt. In the last five years, Earnhardt has just two Cup wins. His last came at Michigan in June 2008, the same year he joined the juggernaut Hendrick Motorsports. But instead of compiling more wins, victory lane grew further out of Earnhardt’s reach. He finished a career-worst 25th in points in 2009 and 21st in 2010.

But things were looking up in 2011, as Earnhardt was paired with new crew chief Steve Letarte. Their communication have been a steady give-and-take, and the results have been palpable: Earnhardt garnered the pole at Daytona and had finished in the top 12 for four straight races. For the first time in years, the No. 88 was improving throughout the race.

As a result, Dale Jr. had something he hadn’t felt in a while: confidence. The No. 88 was showing they could be competitive again, but the question remained: could they contend for the win?

Sunday’s Goody’s Fast Relief 500 showed that yes, they can. Letarte’s pit strategy put Dale Jr. in position at the last restart, but it was “more driver than car,” according to Letarte, when Earnhardt nudged Kyle Busch to take over the lead. For 17 laps it looked like the winless streak would finally come to an end.

Junior Nation – maybe even Junior himself – held their breath.

Chris Trotman/Getty Images
But then came Kevin Harvick. As the two battled for the lead with five laps to go, Earnhardt got a little loose and Harvick was able to make a clean pass. Dale Jr. got on Harvick’s bumper to try and get the lead back, but Harvick was too fast.

All too quickly, the win Junior, his fans and all of NASCAR had waited for faded into the distance.

How did Dale Jr. react? Last year, he was happy to take a top 10. This year, though, second wasn’t enough.

And there was the emotion.

After the race, Earnhardt looked like he had a DNF instead of a runner-up finish. Looking down, his head almost in his hands, he saw what could have been.

“I’m frustrated that, I got close, I was out there leading, and I was thinking, ‘I’m going to try and take me home a clock’ … I hate I didn’t win.”


“I was thinking at the end that I was meant to win that damn race,” he said.

“I'll probably think about it a million times what I probably could have done differently.”


No one aims to finish second. No one wants to finish second. The look on Earnhardt’s face said it all.

But for a driver who has struggled like he has, finishing there is a sure sign of progress.

After the clouds of disappointment started to part, Earnhardt was able to see what he could have done differently.

“I just didn't adjust my driving or whatever I needed to do to change my line to find the speed in the car with the way it was handling; as the handling was changing, I didn't adapt to the line I needed to run I guess to find some speed out of it.”

And ever so slowly, the bigger picture became clearer to Dale Jr. He and Letarte have found the consistency and good finishes that have been missing from the No. 88 for so long.

His team showed they could be competitive again. Now they showed they could contend for the win.

“I think if I know what's best for me, I should probably have a good attitude about what happened today and probably go into the next race and use it as momentum and confidence, like any other good driver would do, instead of worrying about, you know, how close we came. I should be thankful and grateful that I had the opportunity I had today and for the opportunity I got to work with the team I'm with and to even be here competing, and take this momentum and take what looks like to be a better start to the season than I've had in a while to the next racetrack and just keep trying to plug away.”

So the winless streak stretches to 99. Earnhardt stressed that even with the good run at Martinsville, he didn’t consider himself "back.” But with Texas, where he had his first Cup win, and Talladega and Richmond up ahead, it’s very possible the next emotion we may see from Dale Jr. will come in victory lane.


Why didn’t Earnhardt rough up Harvick for the win? We know his dad would have.

Though the comparisons will always be there (and I for one do get tired of hearing them), I need to point out that Dale Jr. is not his dad. They may share the same name, but the two men have always had different racing styles, as any two racers would.

If Dale Jr. was going to win at Martinsville, it was going to be under his own terms. With that said, the normally laid-back driver was more aggressive than we’ve seen him in a long time. His nudging Kyle Busch was a fair move; Kyle said as much. Without “being obnoxious,” as he said after the race, Dale Jr. tried to hold off Harvick with a crossover move. And after Harvick passed him, Junior tried to race around him, even getting on the 29’s rear bumper. But Harvick simply had the better car, and Earnhardt knew it.

When Dale Jr. said he “didn’t want to be the bad guy,” he meant he wasn’t going to take out a car he knew was faster than his. Harvick raced him cleanly, after all; Dale Jr. showed him the same respect back.


For those who doubted Harvick would be a major player this year, his back-to-back victories at Auto Club and Martinsville have all but put that to rest. Even if he doesn’t maintain the consistency he’s shown this early in the year, his two victories could lock him into the Chase through the wildcard provision for most wins.

In last week’s column I wondered if Harvick could use the lessons he learned at Auto Club to go for the championship. One thing I thought he could chip away at was more wins. A week later here he is, the first repeat winner of 2011, beating out the likes of Jimmie Johnson and last year’s runner-up Denny Hamlin. Both have yet to notch their first wins this season.

Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images for NASCAR
Though I recognized Harvick’s growth and his ability to turn it into a win, I didn’t expect him to become the season’s first repeat winner. This got me thinking: who did NASCAR fans think would be 2011’s first repeat winner?

To find out, I conducted an unscientific poll on Twitter. Out of the 10 fans who were kind enough to respond my question, three said Carl Edwards. @Gordonfan83 summed it up when he said, “I thought Edwards would've won more than once.”

Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson rounded out the remaining answers. One fan thought Kurt Busch, after his promising start to the season at Daytona, could’ve have gotten the job done.

"I hoped for KuBu #22, with his team change and all," said @robgrimmett.

Just one person said they keyed in on Harvick, but thought a few other drivers could pull off the feat. "I had a feeling Harvick, if not I would have thought Denny Hamlin or Kyle Busch," said @MarieEdwards429.

Who did I think would be the first repeat winner? I had expected Johnson to take Auto Club and Martinsville, but thought Edwards and Busch had an edge with one win each.

I’m thinking I could use @MarieEdwards429’s help the next time I play the lottery! 

Motor Mouth is a weekly column in which Skirts and Scuffs lead editor Rebecca Kivak spouts off about the latest NASCAR happenings. Continue the conversation by leaving a comment below.
Motor Mouth: The emotions of a win that almost was Motor Mouth: The emotions of a win that almost was Reviewed by Rebecca Kivak on Wednesday, April 06, 2011 Rating: 5