HAMPTON, Ga. — Jeffrey Earnhardt’s smile was pained.
Moments after finishing a career-best sixth in Saturday’s Xfinity race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, he couldn’t help but think what might have been after restating on the front row with three laps to go.
“It’s a sore career-best, let me tell you,” Earnhardt said after emerging from his No. 18 Toyota Supra for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Earnhardt had never scored a top-10 finish in this series. He knew his nine-race deal with JGR was the opportunity of a lifetime. His previous best finish was 12th at Bristol in August 2014 and at Talladega in May 2015.
Before the season, Earnhardt told NBC Sports: “The pressure to go and get in a car that is capable of winning, that’s the pressure I’ve been looking for my whole life.”
That pressure Saturday?
“Best feeling of my life,” he said. “This is honestly a dream come true.”
Last week at Daytona, Earnhardt led the first 29 laps before finishing 15th. This time, he was at the front at the end.
John Hunter Nemechek’s spin set up the final sequence. The field pitted with six laps to go. Earnhardt entered pit road fourth and exited second to fellow JGR driver Christopher Bell.
The problem was that the inside line was significantly better on restarts. Bell choose the inside and that left Earnhardt on the outside. Bell took off on the restart and held off Cole Custer to win. Earnhardt fell back on the restart after spinning his tires.
“No one could restart on the outside, it was just tough,” Earnhardt said. “When we came out second, I was excited, but kind of bummed at the same time because I knew how tough it was going to be.
“I just hate it, man. You get put in that situation, you want to win races.”
Earnhardt next will be in the No. 18 in April at Talladega. He will next race in the Xfinity Series March 30 at Texas Motor Speedway with Xtreme Concepts Racing, which is aligned with Joe Gibbs Racing
“We should have a strong piece there, so I’m looking forward to running just as strong there,” Earnhardt said.