When is a second-place finish disappointing? When you're leading one-quarter of a lap away from the finish line and your fuel tank runs dry.
That was Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The winner of the Daytona 500 two weeks ago was leading into Turn 3 on the final lap when he slowed suddenly, allowing Brad Keselowski to pass him for the win. Earnhardt had enough power in his No. 88 Chevrolet to limp across the finish line in second-place.
While Earnhardt was dejected not to be celebrating his second victory of the year, the disappointment was muted because of the circumstances.
As the only reason he found himself leading was a decision by crew chief Steve Letarte to forgo a pit stop for fuel with 45 laps remaining. That gamble to try to stretch their fuel was a direct byproduct of their Daytona 500 victory. It all but assured a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup and allows the 88 team to aggressively pursue wins -- just as they did Sunday even though they knew they would be short on fuel.
"As much as you want to win -- and believe me, we were out there trying to win -- we weren't going to run in the top-five if we hadn't have used that particular strategy," Earnhardt said.
This past offseason NASCAR revised its method for drivers qualifying for the Chase, placing a greater emphasis on winning.
Post-race, Earnhardt was adamant in his support of the new format which encourages drivers to be more aggressive and not be concerned with collecting points. That is because he is virtually guaranteed a playoff spot and there is "absolutely without a doubt" no way his team would have been so bold otherwise.
"I think the way the new format is definitely showing it has tons of positives, and it's better as far as entertainment for our sport," Earnhardt said. "It's nice to have that freedom to do the things that we did today, even though we knew our odds weren't good.
"We really shouldn't have made it, and we didn't, but we got to try because of the new system. So yeah, I think it's pretty cool."
Without skipping his final pit stop, Earnhardt estimates he would have placed eighth. Like many drivers he dealt with a loose condition for most of the afternoon, and found conditions difficult to pass. But once he got out front Earnhardt compared it to "driving a Cadillac."
With finishes of first, second and second to begin the season, this is the first time he's had three consecutive top-fives to open a year. And dating back to the end of 2013, his worst result is fourth in his previous six starts.
"We were really strong at the end of the year last year; it just thrilled me to death," Earnhardt said. "So this is great. "Yeah, you definitely don't want to take it for granted, but this is what we envisioned, and it's starting to bear some fruit."
The strong start has also quieted any discourse surrounding Letarte's decision to leave Hendrick Motorsports at the end of the year. (Letarte will be an analyst for NBC Sports beginning in 2015.)
As for any talk regarding who will lead the No. 88 team in 2014, Earnhardt said no discussions have taken place. The focus right now is solely on the present, and the present is plenty to make a driver smile, even as he runs out of gas with a win in sight.
"It hurts to lose like that," Earnhardt said. "We'd definitely love to be in Victory Lane right now, but our time will come. We'll keep going."