HOMESTEAD, Fla. – As the sun set on Homestead-Miami Speedway this championship night, so did it on Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s chances to win – both the Ford 400 and the Nextel Cup championship.
Earnhardt dominated at one point Sunday, leading 47 laps and driving away from the field. But the changing weather conditions caused Junior's No. 8 to become tight – so much so that he began slipping backward before eventually scraping the wall.
"We had a really good car when the sun was out and we led some laps, and as soon as the sun went down it was like a switch," said Junior, who ultimately finished 19th. "We got tight and weren't that good."
It was a disappointing end to a Chase that had served as a bit of a coming-out party for Earnhardt Jr.'s team. Actually, it might better be described as a re-emergence.
After all, this was a team that held the points lead during the Chase back in 2004, only to fade (and curse) its way to an overall fifth-place finish. Then came the much talked-about 2005 season, which began with a crew chief swap and ended with Junior failing to make the Chase altogether.
With Junior and cousin/crew chief Tony Eury Jr. (the old team's No. 2 guy) reunited, this year was to be different than 2005.
And it was.
There were a few more top-fives, a few more top-10s, fewer DNFs.
There also was a rebound from adversity in the form of a strong summer stretch following a couple of nearly back-breaking (and consecutive) last-place finishes, a stretch that led Junior back into Chase contention.
And over the last seven or eight races of the Chase, up until the moment the sun disappeared behind the grandstands here at Homestead, the No. 8 was good everywhere it went – even if, on a couple of occasions, the final result didn't show it.
"I've got to tell you – my team, I'm real proud of them," Earnhardt said. "They have a lot to be happy about with what they've been able to accomplish this year."
Still being in contention to win the Cup championship – albeit as a longshot – with just one race remaining in the season is accomplishing plenty, especially considering where this bunch was a year ago.
But with that accomplishment comes disappointment surrounding Sunday's fade, around falling short of the title. It's understandable but also, perhaps, misplaced.
"They're down on themselves about tonight, but they've got a lot to be proud of, man," Earnhardt said after the race. "I hope that they realize that."
Watching Junior drive, when he and his car are at their best, is entertaining in the least and, at times, awe inspiring. While the jury still is out in many people's minds over whether Junior might possess the same talent level of his father, he certainly does have the same on-track flair. Anyone who has watched Junior make aggressive and daring moves on his competitors – especially on plate tracks – must recognize this.
His unwillingness to accept anything less than perfection – or at least a good effort – also is a trait he inherited from his father, and that came out time and time again this season when Junior would argue with Eury on the team's radio over pit strategy, or criticize his team for either giving him a bad car or a worse pit stop, or complain that his engine perhaps wasn't up to snuff.
Despite the team's success this season, those spicy conversations were more the norm than the exception, which makes Junior's repeated professions of admiration for his team after Sunday's race, after this 2006 season, all the more compelling.
"I can't express how proud I am of this team," Earnhardt said. "I just have a tremendous team behind me. They just never gave up all year. We battled back when we [were] down race after race."
This team that Earnhardt likes so much, he and it simply clicked this year. And teammate Martin Truex Jr. having a full year under his belt also should benefit Earnhardt greatly in this era of mega-teams in NASCAR. Truex finished second here Sunday and said after the race that it's not unrealistic to think he could join Junior in the Chase next season.
What the Nextel Cup world must realize is that unlike this season, Junior should enter 2007 as a legitimate championship threat. It was a tag he had heading into '05 but that many believed was misplaced for '06.
Like after 2004, he is coming off a strong finish. But the difference now? The uncertainty caused by team changes occurring over the last couple of years, that's gone. Instead, Junior knows what he has going forward and should be poised for a big 2007.
"We had a great team all year long, and we've got so much to look forward to," he said. "We have to maintain great positive attitudes through the offseason, get some work done and get some great cars built and put it to them next year."
A team that, despite again missing out on its first championship, did what it set out to do.
"We made the Chase and we fought hard, and we are going to try and do that next year," Junior said.
And then, again, came that suddenly familiar refrain.
"We have a great team. Just a really, really great team."