CONCORD, N.C. — On another fall Sunday afternoon in Delaware Jimmie Johnson scored his eighth career victory at Dover (Del.) Int’l Speedway, breaking his tie with Bobby Allison and Richard Petty on the track’s all-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series winners list.
The fact that Johnson won the event and his two main rivals for the 2013 championship — Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch — both ran well in what some might call a pretty darn boring race was not the story coming out of event.
Twitter’s trending topic immediately after the race was not Jimmie Johnson, but rather second-place finisher and NASCAR’s favorite son, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Earnhardt started from the pole. He led the opening portion of the race in convincing fashion. On this day if he could not win there would be no excuses.
The first green-flag pit stop of the event saw an error that seems to haunt Earnhardt frequently. Junior whiffed the pit entrance and subsequently cost his team precious track position. The rest of the race was spent rallying to a respectable fourth place. As a late yellow waved, as it always seems to, Earnhardt’s crew chief, Steve Letarte, played the right strategy for his driver putting him as the first on four tires and not losing any track position whatsoever.
Junior had the preferred high lane on the restart with 26 laps to go and immediately rocketed to second on leader Jimmie Johnson’s bumper. His teammate on two tires had every right to be worried. Although Johnson had the clean air advantage the tires evened this battle. Junior Nation was on its feet as Junior closed in.
Johnson is one of the best drivers of our generation. On this day, he stealthily altered his racing line to get his car on the worn two tires to cut and rise up off of the corners. Johnson’s subtle move allowed him to pull away, the margin of victory being curtailed slightly due to Johnson being careful navigating lapped traffic.
Earnhardt finished second again to his teammate. On this day the No. 88 car had the right stuff to beat him and the fact of the matter was that Johnson did not make the first mistake nor did he underperform when it mattered. Johnson wheeled his car into Dover’s victory lane as a dejected Earnhardt climbed from his car and Junior Nation exited the grandstands disappointed again.
“Second is no better than 10th to me. I take responsibility for that first mistake getting on to pit road,” Earnhardt said, explaining that losing that track position had cost him.
The expression of dejection on Earnhardt’s face appeared to be one of failure and defeat and not that of a driver who finished second.
But Earnhardt was swallowing the bitter truth — the one that most all of the field has over the course of the last decade or so. Johnson is more often than not better than the competition. The team is better and the driver is better…like it or not. The expectation of Earnhardt will always be too high.
Earnhardt fans see no reason why the driver is not experiencing the same success of Johnson. The simpler explanation is that while Junior is very, very good, Johnson is great and may very well be the best before all is said and done.
That is the bitter truth.