After a late spin cost him a good result at Martinsville Speedway last week, Dale Earnhardt Jr. came to Texas saying he still needed "closure" on his recovery from multiple concussions.
Without a solid top-10 to show for his efforts, Earnhardt Jr. still had some lingering doubts and questions in the back of his mind.
In that sense, Sunday's seventh-place finish at Texas meant more to him than just the points gained and purse money earned. Earnhardt Jr. said he felt "real good physically" and was mentally "real sharp" in the car for all 500-plus miles.
"I want to run real hard and win a couple races if we can at the end of this deal, but I also want to finish well for myself and not have any doubts or question marks in the offseason," he said. "I feel like this was a great step in that direction."
The night could have been even better, but Earnhardt Jr. lost ground on the final restart because he was positioned on the outside where it was slicker and harder to pass. That was likely the difference between a top-10 finish and a top-five, but he was still pleased.
At one point, the No. 88 team looked like it could have contended for the win. Other drivers were having to save fuel, but Earnhardt Jr. was told by crew chief Steve Letarte he was good to go and could race hard.
Ultimately, though, the race didn't stay green – so fuel mileage was out of the picture.
"We were in a great position to really have a great finish...and it was nice to be able to make it on fuel mileage and have a bunch of guys going to be short," Earnhardt Jr. said. "But the races aren't going to play out that way – we're going to have some cautions in the end. We did tonight."
There was a flip side to the good gas mileage, though. Earnhardt Jr. noted when an engine isn't guzzling fuel, "you're usually not getting all the power in it, either." That could be a concern, but he said the Hendrick Motorsports engine department was studying the problem and trying to provide as much power as possible without using too much fuel.
Earnhardt Jr. owed his finish in part thanks to an outstanding performance by his pit crew. He picked up an estimated eight spots on the final two pit stops, he said, and called the pit crew "phenomenal."