Gamble doesn’t pay for Dale Earnhardt Jr., but he doesn’t leave Las Vegas disappointed

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Finishes of third, third and fourth to start a season would be great for anyone.

Unless that driver finished first, second and second as Dale Earnhardt Jr. did a year ago.

“We have to step it up a little bit,’’ Earnhardt said with a laugh after his fourth-place finish in Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Still, there was much to take from Earnhardt’s performance. He’s now second in the Sprint Cup standings, nine points behind series leader and Sunday’s winner, Kevin Harvick.

In addition, Earnhardt’s car again was strong. New crew chief Greg Ives showed he’s willing to take gambles.

“You did a heck of a job,’’ Ives told Earnhardt on the radio after the race.

“You’ve got fast cars, keep digging,’’ Earnhardt responded. “You all did great on pit road. Sorry I couldn’t finish second. You guys are all awesome. We’re going to get them. We’re going to get them.’’

While Earnhardt’s car was strong, it was not fast enough to compete with winner Kevin Harvick’s ride. Thus, Ives’ decision with about 35 laps to go to have the pit crew change only two tires to get ahead of Harvick, whose crew made a four-tire change.

“I liked the call,’’ Earnhardt said after the race. “I love being aggressive.’’

Earnhardt’s car was good enough that even if it slipped back a little bit, he likely wouldn’t fall out of the top five and that’s what happened. With this only the third race of the season, it wasn’t as much of a gamble because of the strong finishes Earnhardt has had, putting him in a good spot in the points.

If nothing else, Ives showed he’s willing to make bold calls like Steve Letarte, Earnhardt’s former crew chief. Earnhardt finished second in this race a year ago when he ran out of fuel while leading on the last lap.

This time, Earnhardt’s handling went away late.

“I had a real bad vibration on that last run, and I was really, really loose,’’ Earnhardt said. “We’ve been running the track bar pretty much even the whole race, and at the end there I had it down three inches on right side trying to save my butt. Maybe it was worn-out lefts, I don’t know. The left side (tire) is new and a little softer compound. Maybe we just took it a little bit too far.”