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Close but no cigar for Earnhardt Jr. at Martinsville

Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor

The Inside Line Charlotte, NC (Sports Network) - Hang in there, Junior Nation. It's just a matter of time before your driver is back in victory lane.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was a few laps away from finally ending his winless streak on Sunday at Martinsville Speedway. But Kevin Harvick ended up crashing the party for Earnhardt Jr. and his loyal fans.

Earnhardt Jr., who started 26th, took the lead for the first time when he nudged Kyle Busch out of the way with 21 laps remaining. Busch had led a race- high 151 laps up to that point.

Most in the estimated crowd of 60,000 were jumping for joy when Earnhardt Jr. made it to the front.

"I was thinking at the end that I was meant to win that damn race," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said.
"I was thinking at the end that I was meant to win that damn race," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I'm not sitting there leading that thing by seven-car lengths, thinking I'm about to lose. That's definitely not a good attitude to have at that point.

"I was definitely thinking I need to do what I think is right every corner and try to win this race. I've got a hell of an opportunity right here. If I can put together decent laps, I might be able to keep the distance I had on him, which was only about three or four car lengths. But I just couldn't do it. I made some mistakes in the corners, and the back end of the car was giving up on me a little bit."

Busch would've normally had a temper tantrum if someone bumped him out of the way for the lead, especially in the closing laps. But that wasn't the case this time.

"I was holding [Earnhardt Jr.] up," Busch said. "I sucked, so it was good for him...No harm, no foul."

Busch's third-place run at Martinsville gave him the points lead. He's five markers ahead of Carl Edwards, who finished 18th.

Earnhardt Jr. led 17 circuits around the flat, half-mile Virginia track before Harvick made his winning pass with four to go. Harvick, who dealt with a loose car in the early going, found his way to the front when it counted the most for the second straight race.

"I could see the people just going crazy coming off of turn two when he took the lead from Kyle," Harvick said. "When I was catching him, I'm like, 'Man, I'm going to be the bad guy here.' But I've got to do what I've got to do."

And he did, picking up his 16th career win in NASCAR's top series.

Last week, Harvick passed Jimmie Johnson on the final lap to win at his hometrack in California for the first time.

Earnhardt Jr. has not won in the last 99 races, a streak that dates back to June 2008 at Michigan.

"I should probably have a good attitude about what happened [Sunday] and probably use it as momentum and confidence going into the next race, like any other good driver would do, instead of worrying about how close we came," he said.

The Sprint Cup Series runs its next race on Saturday night at Texas Motor Speedway, where Earnhardt Jr. collected his first of 18 career Cup wins.

It has been a turnaround season for Earnhardt Jr. so far, as he sits eighth in points. He was among the top-10 in points during the early part of the 2010 season, but faded shortly after to end the year 21st in the rankings.

Just days after last year's season-finale at Homestead, FL, Rick Hendrick swapped crew chiefs for three of his four Sprint Cup teams. Steve Letarte took over crew chief duties at Earnhardt Jr.'s No.88 team. Since then, Earnhardt Jr. has recorded three top-10 finishes, as well as the pole position for the Daytona 500.

Happy days are here again for NASCAR's most popular driver, but he isn't convinced of that just yet.

"I haven't really proved it to myself yet, but I'll let you know when I feel like I'm back," Earnhardt Jr. said.

He will know when he returns to his winning ways.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Chris Symeon at csymeon@sportsnetwork.com.

Follow Chris Symeon on Twitter and Facebook.

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