Dale Earnhardt Jr. picked up his best finish since early June at the most opportune of times: The 2011 NASCAR Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway.
Earnhardt Jr. ended up in third place at Monday's Geico 400 after he made his fuel last until the very end of the 400-mile event. The Hendrick Motorsports driver said his gas tank ran dry at the finish line.
"It's just enough," Earnhardt Jr. said afterward. "It wouldn't have made it another lap."
Certainly, Junior Nation can breathe a sigh of relief with that news – especially since an empty tank a half-lap earlier could have meant a major disappointment and brought back bad memories of the Coca-Cola 600.
But the third-place finish will instead be a boost for Earnhardt Jr.'s Chase hopes. He moved up five spots to fifth in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings and is now in his highest position since mid-June (Michigan).
Earnhardt Jr. is 13 points out of the Chase lead (Check the complete standings here).
"You know what? I felt like we would do well in the Chase," Earnhardt Jr. said. "These are good tracks for me. ... I felt we would rebound and kind of return to the form we started at the beginning of the year."
The finish was certainly aided by fuel mileage – multiple drivers ran out of fuel ahead of Earnhardt Jr., and he counted them as he blew by – but he still would have had a decent result even without the help.
He was up to sixth place with 10 laps to go, and crew chief Steve Letarte said the team had a "top-six or top-seven car there at the end."
"We passed a lot of cars, even before people started saving (fuel)," Letarte said. "Couldn't ask for a better start, I guess."
As the No. 88 team did early in the season, Letarte and Earnhardt Jr. were able to work together to make good adjustments and get the car to be more competitive throughout the day.
"That's all you can ask for as a driver, that the car gets better all day long," Earnhardt Jr. said.
Indeed, the team's recent handling problems seemed to have gotten better – at least for the day.
"We maybe uncovered one gremlin," Letarte said. "We'll see if we can find the rest of 'em."