His day didn't end with him celebrating his first Martinsville Speedway victory, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. was still happy with his third-place finish.
The finish vaulted Earnhardt, who led 25 laps Sunday, back to the top of the Sprint Cup standings. He holds a nine-point lead on Matt Kenseth heading to next week's race at Texas Motor Speedway, a track where Earnhardt finished runner-up last fall.
Utilizing patience and discipline on a track that chews up tires, Earnhardt estimates he ran only half throttle for much of the STP 500. And if whenever he needed a reminder to not burn up his left-rear tire, crew chief Steve Letarte was a constant voice in his ear.
"He does a great job of keeping my mind focused on the tasks," Earnhardt said. "There's several different things you're doing in the car during a run, and you can easily get yourself carried away and race a guy and forget taking care of your car and taking care of your left-rear tire. It's easy to get swept up in the competition of things, and he's good at sort of cheerleading you along the way and running the show."
Those reminders are what Earnhardt is going to miss next year he said when Letarte leaves to become an analyst for NBC Sports at the end of the season.
"I'll be missing this next year," Earnhardt said. "There's nobody like him."
For now the pair is enjoying a very strong start to their last campaign together. In addition to leading the points, Earnhardt has four finishes of third or better in six races, including a Daytona 500 victory.
Earnhardt thought another victory was going to occur Sunday. The fabled half-mile has long been a track where he's wanted to conquer, and throughout the weekend Earnhardt spoke openly of his desire to secure a grandfather clock awarded to any driver who can win a Martinsville race.
But with just one caution in the final 83 laps and no pit stops, his No. 88 Chevrolet wasn't in the same class as Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson, who distanced themselves from Earnhardt in the closing stages.
"We'll get more opportunities to win more races," Earnhardt said. "I'm just frustrated I've been chasing the clock here for so long. Hopefully, one of these days it'll work out."
Sprint Cup standings
|1||Dale Earnhardt, Jr.||227||1|
|24||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||136||-91||0|
|28||Martin Truex Jr.||105||-122||0|