Dale Earnhardt Jr. sat on the ledge of his No. 88 car's window opening as it rolled silently into the Sprint Cup Series garage, steering it like a kid sitting sideways on a bike.
NASCAR's most popular driver navigated the car through the darkness of Charlotte Motor Speedway and into one of the garage stalls, guided it between two pit boxes and hopped out as his crew members arrived to bring it to a halt.
There seemed to be only a brief moment of disappointment on his face before he began smiling and patting the crew on their backs, exchanging handshakes and shoulder shrugs over a near-win turned seventh-place finish in the Coca-Cola 600.
"What can you do, you know?" Earnhardt Jr. said.
And really, there was no answer.
Earnhardt Jr. had tried – along with the rest of the field – to milk his fuel mileage until the finish of NASCAR's longest race. Declining to pit on the green-white-checkered overtime laps would be risky – the team engineers told crew chief Steve Letarte that Earnhardt Jr. would run out of fuel on the backstretch of the final circuit – but both driver and team agreed the best call was to go for the win.
By the time he took the white flag – one lap away from victory – Earnhardt Jr. was already at peace with whatever happened next.
Would he finally snap his agonizingly long winless streak? Or would he run out of gas, breaking the hearts of his rabid army of fans who have been so desperate to see him win?
Earnhardt Jr. hit the throttle and hoped for the best.
"I was going around (Turns) 1 and 2, and (spotter) T.J. (Majors) was saying, 'Seven car lengths (ahead). Eight car lengths,'" Earnhardt Jr. said. "I'm thinking, 'This is a real good feeling.' I knew we could run out of gas; I already had my mind geared for that in case that happened so I wouldn't be too upset."
But before he even got to Turn 3 on the final lap, his car sputtered and lost power. He was out of gas, just as the engineers had predicted.
Majors came on the radio and frantically informed his driver that Kevin Harvick's No. 29 car and the rest of the field were closing at a rapid rate. But there was nothing Earnhardt Jr. could do at that point.
Although it appeared he ran out of fuel just before the final turn, his gas tank had actually run dry on the backstretch. His momentum simply carried him through Turn 3 and, slowly waning, to the finish line.
"My car just kept up enough speed and it didn't look like we were out," Earnhardt Jr. said. "My spotter's like, 'Man, they're coming! They're coming!' And I'm like, 'I'm cruising. What am I supposed to do, get out of this thing and pedal with my feet?'"
Majors was certain the team had won the race – finally breaking Earnhardt Jr.'s triple-digit winless streak – as the driver took the white flag.
"Hell yeah I'd thought we'd won it," Majors said. "But we ran good. Put ourselves in position to win. That's all you can really do, right?"
That's all crew chief Steve Letarte felt he could really do. The crew chief said teams must ask themselves: "Did you come to run in the top 10, or did you come to win?"
And the No. 88 came to win, he said.
"We had to try," said Earnhardt Jr., echoing his crew chief's philosophy. "Think about it, man – winning the 600! That'd be awesome. I had to try, you know? Had to try."
Letarte, leaning against the side of the No. 88 hauler, pointed at Turn 3 and then glanced toward the direction of the finish line.
"I don't know how much fuel it takes to get from there to there, but that's what we needed," he said, adding that his trophy case "isn't full enough" to make any other decision but the one that could result in a win.
"We come to get trophies," he added. "That's two races this year – Martinsville and here – that we had a shot to win in the last 25 laps."
The winless streak still lives on, though. And coming so close, Majors was asked if the team – and Earnhardt Jr., one of his closest friends – would start to doubt whether a trip to Victory Lane would ever come.
"Naw, man!" Majors said. "It's to the point now where we just keep finishing top five and running up there, and we'll win 'em. That's how you win races – you keep putting yourself in that position."
Said Earnhardt Jr.: "We're getting close enough that a couple of 'em about fell in our lap, and if we get that extra little step, we'll be in business."
At the start of the weekend, the driver had been skeptical such a good result was within the team's grasp. The No. 88 had a sub-par performance in last week's All-Star Race – which teams use as a tuneup for the 600 – and Letarte even acknowledged being "embarrassed" at how the car ran.
So when Earnhardt Jr.'s car showed promise in the practice sessions leading up to the 600, the driver was only cautiously optimistic.
"Even though we were real fast in practice, I was like, 'Yeah, yeah, well I've seen this before,' you know?" he said. "When the race starts, we'll see what we have. And it was great. The first three runs, it was phenomenal."
But having a good car and coming so close, he acknowledged, was a disappointment.
Standing in the steamy garage on a muggy Carolina evening, Earnhardt Jr. winced as sweat dripped from his forehead and stung his eyes. He asked for a towel and wiped his face, looking worn out – but not beaten.