Though Dale Earnhardt Jr. gave an unusual start-and-stop interview on TV following Sunday's Pocono 400 – an interview that resulted in a flood of speculation from concerned fans on Twitter – the driver was actually his normal self when the camera turned off.
Why the halting interview? As Nate Ryan from USA Today first observed, the driver may have been distracted by an unruly fan who was yelling at one of Earnhardt Jr.'s handlers while TNT's Ralph Sheheen began an interview.
Afterward, though, Earnhardt Jr. acted no differently than he does in any other post-race situation. He answered questions for several minutes, explaining the team's strategy at this point in the season, and then told reporters to travel home safely.
The TV interview aside, Earnhardt Jr.'s day will be remembered for a gamble the team chose not to take.
Late in the race, when it seemed many drivers were on the edge of their fuel window, Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Steve Letarte chose to pit for gas instead of try and stretch their gas for the win.
As it turned out, race winner Joey Logano was among the cars who were way short on fuel but benefited from an unexpected amount of caution laps (which help drivers save more gas).
"I don't like running out of gas," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I ran out of gas here one year, and that pisses me off so bad, it's just hard to recover from it mentally over the next couple weeks. There's no excuse in running out of gas. You put fuel in it and you go run."
Once Earnhardt Jr. and his No. 88 team feel secure in the point standings, the chances of taking a risk to try and go for a win might increase. But despite his winless streak stretching back four years, the focus is on points rather than wins.
"(Logano and other drivers who gambled) gotta get some wins to try to get the Wild Card, and I'm not going to give up 30 points or 20 points in a race," Earnhardt Jr. said. "Not just yet. ... It was the right call for us at this time."
Earnhardt Jr. moved up to second in the point standings and now sits 10 points behind new leader Matt Kenseth. He has a 90-point lead on the 11th-place driver (and thus is 90 points inside a Chase spot). But there are still 12 races to go until the Chase cutoff.
"Best car I've had at Pocono in a long, long time," he said. "Just really trying not to be too upset about it, because we did a lot of good things today and we've got a lot to look forward to.
"Dover (traditionally) kind of starts off where I tend to go south, so yeah, it's been nice to run good. Our team is strong. I expect it to keep going. I will be terribly disappointed if we don't continue to run like this at all the ovals."