There was no celebration in Victory Lane nor was there a grand debut on Twitter, but a second-place finish left Dale Earnhardt Jr. smiling Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway.
With three cautions in the final 35 laps, Earnhardt had multiple opportunities to get the jump on Harvick but each time the driver of the No. 4 car quickly fended off Earnhardt and drove away.
Harvick was dominant throughout the afternoon leading 272 of 312 laps, and the race in the closing stages was for second.
"(Harvick) wasn't going to be rattled by anything," Earnhardt said. "I would have had to get to his bumper under green to try to get him loose or do something like that, which I might have been able to do. We just ran out of laps. He was going to be very, very, very hard to pass. I knew that."
The runner-up finish continues a streak for Earnhardt that dates back to the end of last season. In the previous 11 races he has one win, four seconds, a third and only one finish outside the top 10. It's a stretch that has him openly thinking championship.
"I was wondering if we were going to carry on the momentum from last year, running so good in the Chase," Earnhardt said. "Hopefully we can maintain it. I think we just got a lot of momentum carried over from last year. We were running well in the Chase. I think the Chase performance we had got us pretty excited, real happy to look forward to this season."
While he didn't have the car of Harvick, Earnhardt showed plenty of speed himself. Starting fifth he only fell outside of the top 10 during pit stops, and had an average running position of third. In an effort to pass Harvick, Earnhardt's crew chief Steve Letarte gambled on fuel mileage, though the plan was foiled by the rash of late cautions.
The 88 team was able to be more aggressive with strategy because of its Daytona 500 victory. Under NASCAR's revised system for qualifying for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Earnhardt is virtually ensured of making the playoffs for a fourth straight season, which means he doesn't have to concern himself with racing for points.
"We were stretching (our fuel-mileage) thin," Earnhardt said. "We would have went with the same strategy regardless of the situation. But it wouldn't have been as nerve‑wracking. ... Today if we run out, we run out, no big deal. We can gamble with a better conscience."
Earnhardt holds a six-point lead over Brad Keselowski, who finished third Sunday.
"It's hard to take away a lot from two races," Earnhardt said. "Such a long season, so many things can happen. So many teams can learn and progress and the competition gets tougher and tougher throughout the year as everybody starts seeing what is happening in the garage. Secrets don't last long."