As he always does immediately after a NASCAR race, Dale Earnhardt Jr. climbed from his car at the end of Saturday night's Chase cutoff race and walked around to inspect his No. 88 Chevrolet.
Sometimes, the scrapes and dents he sees are what he expects to find. But this time, after an early wreck at Richmond International Raceway, it wasn't what he thought at all.
"(After the wreck) I was like, 'Man, I didn't hit that hard. I've seen cars wrecked and tore up run fine,'" he said. "I felt pretty positive. If I had seen it, I probably wouldn't have had such a great attitude about it. I didn't know it was as bad as it was."
Earnhardt Jr. and his No. 88 team were able to rally back from near-disaster and finish 16th on Saturday night, which helped him clinch a spot in the 2011 Chase – the fourth time he's made NASCAR's playoff.
And for Junior Nation, it was a roller-coaster night that went from bad to salvageable to bad again to relief.
"I grew about 10 years older that race, I think," spotter T.J. Majors said. "Just relieved, man. At the beginning of that race, I don't think it got any worse."
Just a few laps into the race, Clint Bowyer spun out ahead of Earnhardt Jr., who slowed down to avoid the wreck but got slammed from behind. That caused Earnhardt Jr. to T-bone Bowyer and damage the front of his car.
"I didn't know how bad it was," Majors said. "It didn't look like it was terrible, but it looked pretty bad. I don't know, man. I thought we were going to be three laps down and 30th."
But the crew made enough repairs to keep Earnhardt Jr. running, and suddenly things didn't seem so bad for the No. 88 team.
"I was worried, because we wrecked early," Earnhardt Jr. said. "But then everybody else started wrecking."
While the race saw caution after caution, Earnhardt Jr. was able to continually overcome an ill-handling car. He was lapped three times, but earned the free pass in each instance and returned to the lead lap.
It wasn't all smooth, though. Earnhardt Jr. intentionally wrecked Travis Kvapil while racing for the free pass and radioed to his team that "the fucker got what he deserved, and he knows it."
And at one point, it looked grim again. Earnhardt Jr. had slipped into the mid-20s, and Brad Keselowski – who was chasing Earnhardt Jr. for a top-10 points position – was running in the top five.
Keselowski was suddenly within two points of knocking Earnhardt Jr. out of a Chase spot.
"I knew it was close," Earnhardt Jr. said with a grin. "He was in second and I was in like 20th or something. I was like, 'Man, this was pretty bad.' But I just gotta keep going. Wasn't much I could do about it.
"I'm afraid if I got too worried about it, I'd freak out and screw up or something, you know?"
Earnhardt Jr. sounded as if he did freak out at one point on the team radio. But overall, Majors said, the driver kept his head in the game.
"It's one of the best races I've watched him drive," Majors said. "He fought hard, raced hard, got into some mixes with some guys we probably didn't need to. But he drove hard and kept us in the race all race."
"That's perseverance, man," crew chief Steve Letarte said. "Now, we take the gloves off."