As Jimmie Johnson sped under the checkered flag to win Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, an all-too-familiar face finished second: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The runner-up finish was Earnhardt's fifth of 2013, and the third time this season he has placed second to Johnson, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate. Earnhardt finished second to Johnson at Daytona and Dover.
No one, including Earnhardt, had anything for Johnson, who dominated the proceedings Sunday. The five-time Cup champion led 255 of 334 laps, and crossed the finish line a comfortable 4.3 seconds ahead of Earnhardt.
"The 48 was in another class and nobody had anything for him," Earnhardt said.
Despite finishing second yet again and extending his winless streak to 53 races, Earnhardt was enthused post race. He was strongly encouraged with the continued gains his No. 88 team made throughout the weekend, steadily improving with every practice and into the AAA Texas 500.
"We started out Saturday morning in practice really struggling, and we worked on the car and improved it for the second practice and made a lot of changes overnight to go in that direction," Earnhardt said. "When the race started, we had a top-10 car, and I think Steve (Letarte, crew chief) improved it quite a bit. The track was kind of coming to us as well."
Texas was a continuation of an uptick in performance for Earnhardt, who has three runner-ups in seven Chase races along with three other top-10s. Yet as Johnson leads the standings, Earnhardt sits fifth overall, 62 points back with no hope of winning his first championship. The reason he's so far back is due to an engine failure in the opening Chase race at Chicagoland Speedway that saw him finish 35th.
And although it's easy to wonder where he'd rank without the mechanical woes, Earnhardt tries not to wonder what if.
"The Chicago deal is regrettable," Earnhardt said. "We'd love to go back and do that over again, but as soon as that happened, we really changed our approach and it was more about trying to win a race. Winning a race would really lift all the teams' spirits.
"You work all season long not to go winless and not to get to Victory Lane. So I know how much the guys want the win on the team. So that's what we're working for now."
Although he's come close numerous times, Earnhardt hasn't paid a visit to Victory Lane since June 2012.
But regardless of the zero in the win column, his car owner is impressed with what's seen.
"He's been running really well," Rick Hendrick said. "I didn't think Jimmie would get him at Dover, but Dale and Stevie are really clicking. Dale's confidence is higher than I've seen it since he's been with us.
"You know, if he hadn't had that motor problem early in the Chase, he'd be right there."