Dale Earnhardt Jr. shook his head in disbelief when crew chief Steve Letarte told him to conserve fuel toward the end of the STP 400 on Sunday.
“Not again,” Earnhardt said.
But Earnhardt found himself in the same predicament at Kansas Speedway as he was in last week in the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, N.C., with too much pavement and not enough gas for the final 11 laps.
ast week, he lost the lead and sputtered home in seventh place. On Sunday, he made the fuel last for a second-place finish.
“He was telling me the whole run ‘We're good. We’re good. We’re fine.’ Then we get within 10 to go and he said, ‘Back it down, back it down.’ ”
Earnhardt thought he could catch Brad Keselowski, who took the lead with nine laps to go, but Letarte told him dial it down.
“He said, ‘We're going to run out (of gas) right at the flag stand,’” Earnhardt said. “And it did. The gauge was red. It ran out the back of the straightaway. I was backing it down, doing what he said.”
So with the second place finish, NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver has now gone 106 races without a win, dating to Michigan in 2008.
But the second-place finish — his second of the season, including Martinsville — moved him into third place in the points standings, just one behind Jimmie Johnson and 41 behind leader Carl Edwards.
So not all is bad for Earnhardt, who is also in the last year of his contract with Hendrick Motrorsports.
“When I get home by myself, that's how I'll feel about it,” Earnhardt said. “In the grand scheme of things I've got a lot of people that are there are a lot of people who will remind you throughout this sport of how fortunate you were and how lucky you are.
“So I like to beat them to the punch and let them know I realize how fortunate I was today to get second place.”
Earnhardt’s problem hasn’t been finishing races, it’s been qualifying for them. He started 25th at Charlotte last week and 28th on Sunday at Kansas. His average starting position is 20th. His average finish is 10th.
“We need to work on qualifying to not make the day so long and so hard on us,” Earnhardt said. “We need to start in the top 10 so we ain't gotta work the first three quarters of the race trying to get within sight of it.
“Our best qualifying effort was 20th at Martinsville, outside of Daytona and Talladega. And everything else has been worse than 22nd. That's terrible. Terrible. We just gotta figure out what we need to do. It can't be that hard.”
If Earnhardt can solve the qualifying issues, he sees no reason that he can’t end his winless streak.
“We’ve had some runs where we drove ourselves into the positions where we finished,” he said. “We finished well by running well and by getting lucky. And that's what championship teams do.
“You always scratch your head when Jimmie (Johnson) and them guys look like they're out of it and next thing you turn around at the end of the race and they're right there in the middle of it. And you're like: ‘How in the world?’ So now I guess I'm on that side of the fence.
“But it's just rolling the dice, man, that's what it was. You know how the dice is, sometimes it works for you and sometimes it don't.”