For the first time in over two months Dale Earnhardt Jr. recorded a top-five finish, as he placed third in the Party in the Poconos 400 at Pocono Raceway.
Earnhardt ran the entire race in the top five and was lined up second on a late-race restart to teammate Jimmie Johnson. But on a day when the five-time NASCAR champ was absolutely dominant, Earnhardt had no illusions that he had a car strong enough to win his first race of the season.
"We just didn't have the car to do it," Earnhardt said post-race. "But we had good speed. We didn't have the winner of the race covered but we had everybody from fifth on back covered. So when your car can run that well you want to finish where it should finish."
Sunday was a welcome change for NASCAR's most popular driver.
Since opening the season with five consecutive finishes of seventh or better, Earnhardt has seen his performance dip considerably. And it wasn't just a lack of speed in his Chevrolets either; it was also circumstances working against him that led to an eight-race stretch entering Pocono where he hadn't finished better than ninth.
"It is good for us to get a good run," Earnhardt said. "We were counting on sort of rebounding. We haven't had a good last couple of months, cars haven't been that fast, had some issues here and there. But it's good to get a good, solid full race in and finish where I felt like the car was capable of running, and we got a couple other tracks coming up.
"Hopefully we can do this throughout the summer and get ourselves in the Chase pretty comfortably."
The good vibes and the return of the success he enjoyed earlier in the season come at a welcome time for Earnhardt. Next week's race is at Michigan, where a year ago he snapped his four-year winless streak with a resounding victory.
The way he sees it, there's little reason why the positive momentum from Pocono should not carry over to Michigan.
"Hopefully going to Michigan we've got a good package. When we get there we'll see," Earnhardt said. "But so far it's been real similar to last year. We were strong there last year."