Dale Earnhardt Jr. had just come four laps from ending his 98-race winless streak, had just come home second at Martinsville. Yet there he was, head hanging low. No smile. No joy. No satisfaction.
He may be eighth in points, have as many top 10s as Jimmie Johnson this season, but Junior isn't interested in consolation prizes.
"I'll let you know when I feel like I'm back," he said. "I ain't really proved it to myself yet.
"Anyone that watched that race today knows that we weren't a second-place race car or even a third-place race car all day. We never were up there to prove that point. So there's no argument. We got some work to do still, and you know, we are faster, we are more competitive than last year. But we are still – we still got a little ways to go."
Junior catches a lot of flack for not being as good as his daddy – for not living up to his family name. He'll likely catch more from some who will point out that him losing control of his car with four laps to go allowed Kevin Harvick to make the pass for the lead in the Goody's 500 at Martinsville Speedway on Sunday. The criticism, however, is unfounded.
If Junior were some arrogant punk who walked around with an air of entitlement, sure, go ahead and rip the guy for using his famous name to prop himself up. But he doesn't do that. Not even close.
Bottom line: Junior is humble, both in life and as the son of an all-time legend. His reaction to Sunday's finish tells us as much. After crossing the finish line just behind Harvick, Earnhardt keyed in over his radio to say sorry to his crew, apologizing for getting loose and allowing Harvick to make the race-winning pass.
"All of the credit really goes to Steve [Letarte, crew chief] for the finish we had today and the team for really kind of plugging away and making the adjustments," Junior said afterward.
But it's what he said a few moments later that Junior fans should pay attention to:
"I just didn't adjust my driving or whatever I needed to do to change my line to find the speed in the car with the way it was handling."
When it comes to criticism of Junior the driver, it's that at times he seems ambivalent about making any adjustments needed to reverse the tide. He was willing to hang with cousin/crew chief Tony Eury Jr. no matter what. When things didn't go well with his last crew chief, Lance McGrew, Junior stayed neutral. To his credit, he never criticized McGrew, but he also didn't take an active role in fixing things other than to say he'd do whatever team owner Rick Hendrick wanted. And in the past when his car was junk, he'd do little more than tell whoever was manning his pit box that his car was junk. Some feedback.
That's why Junior's comment about not adjusting his driving line is noteworthy. It's not that he's taking responsibility for not winning. Junior has proven he's big enough to do that. Rather, it's a sign of growth, that he gets that winning isn't always about having the fastest car, but sometimes it's about finding a way to make the car you have go faster.
"I think if I know what's best for me, I should probably have a good attitude about what happened today and probably go into the next race and use it as momentum and confidence, like any other good driver would do, instead of worrying about, you know, how close we came," he said. "I should be thankful and grateful that I had the opportunity I had today … and take this momentum and take what looks like to be a better start to the season than I've had in a while to the next racetrack and just keep trying to plug away."
Junior may not be back yet. His 99-race winless streak may go on for months. But with one comment he's shown that things are definitely different – that he's heading in the right direction.
For Junior Nation, there should be hope in that.