It’s not like when the minivan begins to sputter a few miles from home and you slowly pull over to avoid danger and the embarrassment of someone recognizing you. At least then, you can walk in obscurity to the nearest gas station and fill up one of those red plastic cans with a gallon or two.
In the world of Dale Earnhardt Jr., running out of gas can be a tad more public.
NASCAR has promised that its new system to determine which drivers make the Chase will be far more exciting than its old format, that by placing a higher emphasis on winning races, you will see teams gamble more and take the sort of chances that were missing from the days of compiling points and trying to be good countless weeks than great for a few.
Earnhardt tried to be great Sunday.
He was an energy drink can’s worth of fuel from it.
He ran out of gas on the final lap, which allowed Brad Keselowski to surge past him and win the Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Earnhardt crawled his way to a runner-up finish for the second consecutive week.
The crazy part: He knew it was coming.
“We weren’t going to win,” Earnhardt said. “As much as you want to, we shouldn’t have made it. And we didn’t. But we got to try because of the new system, and that’s pretty cool.”
Here’s why: Earnhardt won the Daytona 500 to open the season, meaning he had all but secured a spot in the Chase playoffs. It immediately took major pressure off him and allowed his team to form strategies such as the one used Sunday, when Earnhardt chose not to pit with the other leaders on the day’s final caution.
They would have never made such a call with the previous playoff format.
They would have never gone for it like that.
It’s better this way. For years, the Sprint Cup standings were like something out of a recreation youth soccer league, where you half expected the series to award participation trophies to anyone with a top-10 finish. It was nice to win. It just wasn’t required all that much.
“The new system gives us freedom to do things like we did today, even though we knew the odds weren’t good,” Earnhardt said. “Damn right, leading the race the last 50 laps is a hell of a lot better than being eighth the last 50. (Expletive), I was interested. It was exciting. Had we not stayed out there and decided to (pit) with the others, we wouldn’t have finished in the top five.”
He talked about dirty air and clean air, and I’m thinking he wasn’t comparing a jog through downtown Los Angeles to one in Fargo, N.D. It must be a surreal feeling, knowing that if Keselowski somehow went from third to second by getting around Carl Edwards (who also chose not to pit on the last caution) those finals laps, there just wasn’t enough left in the tank to win.
Earnhardt tried. He conserved the best he could. He began slowing into both corners, began lifting his foot sooner and sooner. But he knew Keselowski would be quicker in clean air — he was all day — and that once he saw the No. 2 just eight car lengths behind, his second-place fate was sealed.
Still, most everything else seems to be going Earnhardt’s way. He is coming off his most consistent season and leads the Chase standings after three races. He is 39, more mature, less likely to pull off his helmet and bash a fender upon running out of gas, which he did at Pocono in 2008.
“I made a real ass of myself that day,” he said. “I learned a lot from it. When you run out of gas now, when you crash, wreck, blow up, there is an opportunity to make it even worse or clean up the mess and go on. Throwing tantrums doesn’t do your team any good. I need to think of the positives and be productive.
“It sucks to lose like this, but our time will come (again). We’ll keep it going. Our confidence is up. Our team just keeps stepping up the ladder. The sky is the limit for us. We just need to keep our composure and not get foolish and be smart.”
He sat down for a postrace interview session and in front of him on a table were two cans of Kick Start energy drink.
Earnhardt picked one up and read the label.
“Sixteen ounces,” he said. “That’s all we needed.”
He said it with a lot more confidence than had he been pulling the minivan over to avoid danger and embarrassment.
But, man, I bet he wishes there was a red plastic can lying around somewhere on that final lap.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at email@example.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.