MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. entered Sunday's STP Gas Booster 500 as the points leader in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings.
He exited third in points, hampered by an ill-handling car that grew steadily worse in the waning stages of the 500-lap race.
By day's end, Earnhardt Jr., 32, was two laps down to race-winner and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson; a 12-point advantage suddenly a 12-point deficit thanks to a 24th-place finish.
"At the start of the race we had a good car," Earnhardt Jr. said. "We made a lot of adjustments to change that, though. It was a bad car at the end of the race."
The car was bad enough that Johnson put a lap on his teammate with 74 laps remaining. After that, it was a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time -- with 34 laps still on the board, Brian Vickers nudged Danica Patrick, who slipped up into Earnhardt Jr. and sent the No. 88 Chevrolet for a spin.
Just like that, the former points leader found himself two laps down.
There was talk that Johnson could have slowed up enough for Earnhardt Jr. to get his car headed back in the right direction once the caution flew on Lap 467, thus remaining only one lap off the pace.
Crew chief Steve Letarte wasn't looking for charity, however. There were no issues with Johnson or the No. 48 team, he said.
"No, the issue is when you run like crap and you get in the back," Letarte said. "That's the issue.
"I would never expect a teammate who was leading in the race to help you not go two laps down. That's pretty embarrassing to ask him to do that."
While he remains winless through 27 Martinsville starts, Earnhardt Jr. has typically fared well on the small, tight half-mile track. History went for a spin, however, and his streak of five consecutive top-10 finishes to open the season came to an abrupt halt.
It was a missed opportunity, he said, adding that, "I think we have to capitalize at the tracks where we run good and this is one of them.
"I'm pretty disappointed that we ran like we did. We just have to try better when we come back ? it's a long year, things are going to happen. That doesn't mean you have to like it.
"I thought we would run great here."
A problem with the car's track bar may have been at fault early on, Earnhardt Jr. said, but Letarte wasn't putting the blame solely there.
"I don't think that was an issue for how we ran," Letarte said. "Our car after about 30 laps was probably one of the worst in the field. We tried to fix that and as we did that took away some of our front-end speed. It just wasn't good. You'll have those days here."
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