At one point, Earnhardt Jr. seemed to be catching race leader Kurt Busch and second-place Jimmie Johnson; the traffic, the lack of laps remaining and the small differences in how close the three cars were from a competitive standpoint negated any serious bid for the lead.
Instead, he finished third, his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet surviving on a day when many others did not. He's back atop the points standings, and has now finished third or better in four of this year's six races.
The winning driver at Martinsville earns a grandfather clock. Earnhardt Jr. is still searching for his first.
"You couldn't run any harder with the wear we had on the tires," Earnhardt Jr., who led three times for 25 laps, said. "You just couldn't afford to. You saw how the 20 car and the 18 car (of Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch), those guys would run real hard at the lead early in the race, and they set an example for the rest of us to watch out and be easy on that left?rear tire ... it just goes away like a snap.
"I couldn't afford to run any harder if I wanted to be competitive on the end of these runs. ... None of the runs went past 80 laps, but typically we see a good long run in the middle of the race, and we were just ready for that."
Earnhardt Jr. had qualified 26th, worked his way toward the front shortly before halfway, then stayed out under a round of caution-flag stops to inherit the lead. He was able to remain out front for a bit, but eventually fresher tires would win out.
Toward the end of the race, after all the leaders had pitted with less than 40 laps remaining, everyone had fresh tires. It was time to go.
"Inside of 38 laps to go I thought everybody was going to go like hell, and we all did and ended up running third," he said. "I think the two guys (Busch and Johnson) in front of me were -- I was losing my car pretty fast there the last five laps so I didn't have anything else to get there.
"I got a couple lapped guys gave me the outside instead of the inside. That's their right, but that cost me a little time and maybe some wear and tear on my tires. I thought when we passed the 22 (Joey Logano) we might be able to roll up there and get in the middle of the race for that win, but no, those guys' cars, they were pretty good."
Patience, he said, was the key. "When guys were faster, I just let them go and just sat there," he said.
"I was real patient all day in saving the left rear (tire) and just waiting until the end (to) see where we'd be. We had good track position."
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