RICHMOND, Va. —All the accolades were nice for Dale Earnhardt Jr., but what mattered most Saturday was that he was back in victory lane.
While it’s only been two months since his last win — he won his duel at Daytona — Earnhardt has been close lately without taking the checkered flag first. He’s finished second three times this Sprint Cup season, including the last two races.
Earnhardt admits coming close and not winning weighs on a driver — especially when a victory all but guarantees a spot in the Chase.
“You get anxious and uptight,’’ he said. “You get frustrated and the patience in the hauler runs thin. You know everybody around you is pushing hard and trying to help. Everybody is trying to work hard. You want it to happen.’’
It did in Saturday’s Xfinity race at Richmond International Raceway. Earnhardt led 128 of 149 laps to score his first win in a points race since November’s Cup event at Phoenix. It also marked his first victory driving a JR Motorsports car.
“That’s something the entire shop is aware of every time we take him to the race track,’’ crew chief Dave Elenz said. “Everybody at JRM is very excited about winning with the boss.’’
Earnhardt just felt good winning again.
“It does a little something to your ego,’’ he said after his first Xfinity victory since 2010. “Ego and confidence is a bit of the same thing when you’re trying to get things done on the race track. Every time you kind of come close or you go a weekend without getting a win, it’s a bruise to your ego a little bit, maybe a little piece of your confidence chipped away.
“Any time you can get back to victory lane, even if it is in a Truck or an Xfinity car, it makes you feel like, ‘Hey, I know what I’m doing, I just need to keep calm, things are working well, we just need to stay the course, we’re going to make it happen.’
“It certainly feels good even though you know it’s not a Cup race, it’s not 400 laps, you didn’t achieve all the things that you achieve in a Cup race. It helps you understand that you can get the job done.’’
Later, Earnhardt added with a smile: “I know Kyle (Busch) wasn’t in the race. That’s one thing my dad would remind me of if he were here.’’
Now Earnhardt’s focus turns to sweeping the weekend. He will start Sunday’s Cup race 16th.
“A win in the Cup series is so critical to our season,’’ said Earnhardt, who has won seven Cup races in the past two seasons. “We had a winning car at Texas, we probably didn’t have one last week (at Bristol).
“It would be very frustrating to continue to get close and not be able to eventually get yourself in victory lane. Even though we know we’re a good enough team to make the Chase regardless of how many wins we’ve got, if any, just to get to victory circle, there’s so much pressure for teams to compete and win … and we’ve won multiple races over the last couple of years. We want to continue that trend.’’