It certainly wasn't a win, and his winless streak may have been extended to 130-races and counting, but a second-place finish in the Daytona 500 had Dale Earnhardt Jr. feeling pretty upbeat early Tuesday morning.
Starting in the fifth position, Earnhardt Jr. was a fixture at the front of the field throughout the 500-mile affair. Even as various accidents and mechanical failures continued to weed out the field – including Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne – Earnhardt Jr. kept showing he had one of the strongest cars of the night.
As the field came to the start/finish line for a green-white-checkered finish, there was Earnhardt Jr., sitting fourth behind Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle and Denny Hamlin – in excellent shape to not only score his second win in "The Great American Race," but to snap a winless drought which has spanned three-plus years.
The only thing between Earnhardt Jr. and Victory Lane was the Roush Fenway duo of Kenseth and Biffle, who consistently were shown to be among the fastest cars on the track all throughout Speedweeks. But as is the norm in restrictor-plate racing, the two teammates quickly paired up and used the draft to their advantage. They vigorously protecting the inside line, which had proved many times over to be the fast way around the 2.5-mile track.
All through the final two laps, Earnhardt Jr. desperately tried to work his way around the 16 car of Biffle and to make a run at his good buddy Kenseth. But it wasn't until they came off of Turn 4 that Earnhardt Jr. was able to successfully get around Biffle and make a feeble charge towards the lead.
By then, however, it was too late and instead it was Kenseth who celebrated his second victory in the Daytona 500 and not Earnhardt Jr.
"Yeah, it was a good finish for us," Earnhardt Jr. said afterward. "I'm really pleased to be able to get good points tonight. The Roush cars are just really strong; they've shown that all week. I really didn't know just how good they were until I got up there those last 60 laps, and I could get in between them, but I couldn't get in front of them. Just didn't have enough car to get around them and get the lead."
Even the two-hour delay for the jet fuel fire in Turn 3 didn't seem to bother Earnhardt Jr. In fact, it made him harken back to some of his early memories in the sport he grew up around.
"We were talking about it on the back straightaway," he said. "That was kind of fun actually, standing around on the back straightaway. It reminded me of Hickory when we'd race over there and they'd have a funeral and you'd have to stop and talk about the race or whatever, whatever you'd want to talk about.
"It was an unfortunate incident, but NASCAR did a great job to finish the show, and they took their time, and they did it right. So I was kind of happy how that all turned out."
What isn't fun is not winning, and unfortunately, that's something Earnhardt Jr. has had a lot of experience in lately. Monday's second-place finish represented his sixth runner-up finish since his last victory, 130 races ago at Michigan (June 2008).
"I'm very happy," Earnhardt Jr. responded when asked if he was angry. "I'm really in a good place. I'm not frustrated at all, I promise. I'm in a great mood; I run second here a lot. Though, I don't feel it right now, but I know later tonight and tomorrow and the rest of the week it's going to eat at me what I could have done to win the race. So that is kind of frustrating.
"But no, I'm fine. I think that we did everything we could at the end."
For a driver and team who has expectations of returning to the Chase for a second-straight year, a strong start is the ideal way to jumpstart their 2012 season.
"You do want to come in here (media center) and make sure the press knows that you wanted to win the race," Earnhardt Jr. said, "because the press is going to tell the fans what you thought, and you don't want to give anyone the impression that you are fine running second, because I'm not. But I am happy with the points I got tonight, because it is a tough hole to climb out of, and this new system really makes it a little different and makes you uneasy.
"I am happy to be able to come out of here and not look back throughout the season, and look at this race as one of the ones where we give some points away, like we did last year."