Dale Earnhardt Jr. challenges for win before finishing third at Atlanta

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For a second consecutive week, another pivotal restart didn’t go Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s way.

Earnhardt took his best shot at Jimmie Johnson on a restart with 14 laps to go Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway but couldn’t stay with the eventual race winner. Kevin Harvick claimed second in the closing laps, pushing Earnhardt to third.

That’s the same position he finished in last week’s Daytona 500, where he was left second-guessing a decision to move up the track on a restart with 19 laps left. He dropped from third to 20th, recovering to finish third.

Earnhardt was more optimistic after Atlanta than he was after Daytona.

“We started out Thursday and we weren’t really happy,” he said. “We were kind of frustrated with this car on the balance. But every day, the car got better. [Crew chief] Greg [Ives], [lead engineer] Kevin [Meendering], and the engineers really worked hard to study and improve, and we did.

“We had a great car today, just not good enough to beat Jimmie. I got on the outside of him there on that last restart, but I knew down in Turns 3 and 4 that I didn’t have the preferred line. He’s pretty quick around the bottom and we ran over something on the race track. It knocked the grille out of it and hurt the aerodynamics there with a few laps to go.

“I think we could’ve raced Kevin a little bit, but it was pretty much over with when that happened. I’m real fortunate we didn’t have another caution because I don’t think we would’ve done well with that grille knocked out.”

Despite missing out again on his first win of the year, Earnhardt and Ives have still started their new partnership strong. Earnhardt complimented Ives afterward, saying their communication was natural.

“He’s a pretty decent cheerleader, too, for myself and the team,” said Earnhardt, who had to calm the crew chief after Ives called Earnhardt out of his pit stall by shouting on the radio. “He’s going to be something else for a while around that garage. I’m glad to be able to work with him there.”