Updated: April 14, 2014, 2:38 PM ET

Kevin Harvick A Happy Man

Sprint Cup: Earnhardt Laments Lost Opportunity

By Brant James | ESPN.com

That Dale Earnhardt Jr. can lament a second-place finish at Darlington Raceway underscores just how well he is performing.

Very well, currently.

"If you scratch Texas off the map, that's how good we are," said Earnhardt, who has followed a Daytona 500 win with four more top-5 finishes -- including three runner-ups -- in eight races. "We were running that good the first two or three races. I think this is as good as this team has ever been. We've got areas where we can probably get a little better, but we're really right there."

Earnhardt had three top-5s and never finished higher than fourth at the odd-shaped 1.366-mile South Carolina track before this weekend.

He's made no secret of how much he has dreaded the place, but worried his sentiments would engender defeatism on his team. Earnhardt led off Turn 4 on a second green/white/checker attempt on Saturday, but Kevin Harvick, whose dominant No. 4 Chevrolet led 238 of 374 laps, used four fresh tires -- Earnhardt had taken two on the final stop -- and made the decisive pass. In the process, Harvick became the first two-time winner of the Sprint Cup season.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Sean Gardner/NASCAR/Getty ImagesDale Earnhardt Jr. couldn't hold off Kevin Harvick at Darlington.

"Everybody was telling me that I had a 15carlength lead, and I don't want to hear about that," Earnhardt said. "I'm going to hear about it all day tomorrow, man -- 'You almost won it.' "

   

Frustrating, for sure, but borne of increased expectations.

Virtually assured a Chase for the Sprint Cup slot as a race-winner, Earnhardt is fourth in driver points after recovering from his biggest misstep of the season, a self-inflicted crash just 12 laps into the race at Texas Motor Speedway last week.

In the oddity of the new system used to populate the Chase field, however, Harvick is in the advantageous position compared to Earnhardt Jr. despite residing 22nd in points. But although Harvick has finished 36th or worse four times amid misfortune and quality control inconsistency at Stewart-Haas Racing, he has been consistently fast and a persistent concern to his peers.

That made the Harvick-Earnhardt battle on Saturday a fitting snapshot of the first eight races of the season with an idle week upcoming.

"The performance of the 4 car, I saw that coming because I know how good [crew chief]  Rodney [Childers] is and I know how good Kevin is, and pairing them together, that's one of the best pairings in the garage next to [Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson] and Chad [Knaus]," Earnhardt said. "That's going to really be a tough combination to battle all year.  They're going to win more races.  But our team, man, I'm proud and I'm happy where I'm at.  These guys are giving me some great stuff.  We've really learned each other, and they know they're giving me some really good cars because they know my habits and what I'm looking for."

"I definitely think he has been the fastest car all year long," Johnson said of Harvick. "You look at the races that he didn't finish: Vegas, Texas, some tracks where they've been the fastest car and had issues. I think that Rodney and Kevin both, they've really been on it to start the season, and I think we all have been chasing them, honestly."

Johnson, who finished third after recovering from a 26th-position starting spot at Darlington is winless, but fifth in points and hardly panicking as the collective hand-wringing over his supposed predicament intensifies.

Not always an early season winner and statistically very likely to manage at least one victory after amassing 66 in his career, his future playoff entry is all but a foregone conclusion. But even with a pair of tire failures and a bizarre crushed windshield at Texas marring his performances so far, and more laps led (501) than any driver except Harvick (515), Johnson is in the unusual scenario of pursuing. Not just in points or performance, but in path.

Johnson said it's crucial for his No. 48 Chevrolet team to be "just unloading closer," on race weekends, or arriving at the track with the car better tuned to the specifications needed to compete for wins.

"We seem to find a way come race time to get a good finish, and, honestly, have a shot to win some races," he said. "But showing up at the track a little bit closer is key for us. We're really just trying to get a grasp on these rules, and we go home with what we've learned from a previous race, bring a new mousetrap, and unfortunately we've had to continue to work on it each week."

Brant James

Contributor, espnW.com
Brant James has covered the Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500, a World Series and Stanley Cup for the big hometown daily, an NCAA tournament and a Super Bowl. He's walked to the paddock with Kentucky Derby horses before post, ridden to the top of Mount Washington with Travis Pastrana and landed on an aircraft carrier with Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Late Surge Lifts Kevin Harvick To Darlington Win

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