DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. was at a crossroads.
Reunited with his old team and feeling indebted to it for putting together a strong car that ran fifth going into the two overtime laps of the Daytona 500, Junior couldn't decide whether to go for the win or stay in line and secure a top-five finish.
"I don't want to ruin everything y'all worked for," he told his crew.
But in the end, the heart of a racer won out, even if the racer didn't win.
The green flag dropped for the final two-lap sprint to the finish and Junior immediately broke out from behind Elliott Sadler, who was running fourth. Farther ahead of him, Jimmie Johnson, Casey Mears and Ryan Newman (who would finish in that order) were racing to determine the winner.
Junior, on the other hand, couldn't even get enough drafting help behind him to make a play to keep the fifth-place position.
When he moved to the outside, he cut off Kasey Kahne's move to the front. With Kahne the only driver behind him, he began to lose ground as Sadler maintained fourth place and Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer, and Brian Vickers snuck by to secure fifth, sixth and seventh places.
"We just didn't have enough to get to the front," he said.
Junior had been fighting with the car all day, once telling his team over the radio, "This motor's like an old man -- it'll wake up and run for a while, then fall back asleep."
But while he said he believed his crew had worked a top-five race, he had to put that on the line for the slimmest of chances he could win.
"I knew nobody would go with me on the outside," Junior said. "But it was the only chance we had to win, so I decided to go for it. I'm not here to run fifth or eighth or whatever we finished. I can live with myself knowing I at least tried to win rather than stay in line."
Junior did manage to lead the most laps of the race, 32 out of 203. But his performance was far from what his fans had become accustomed to the past two years when he finished third and first, respectively. Junior said that it shouldn't sound an alarm among fans concerned that DEI has slipped in its plate program. He insists his inability to get back to the front had more to do with lacking teammates to draft with and other competitors simply driving a better race than he did.
"We had a great race car," he said, "built by all the technology and resources at DEI. We came down here and ran great. That's what we wanted to do. I'm real proud of everybody back at the shop and all my guys down here that have been working on this car all week. It's been a long week."
Now, it's over and the Series heads to California. Junior isn't as good at that West Coast 2-mile oval as he traditionally has been at superspeedways, but he said an eighth-place finish was enough to boost the team's confidence and send the team into the 2006 campaign with momentum.
"We didn't win but we did good," he said. " We're real happy to come out of here with a top 10. A lot of guys weren't so fortunate."
Rupen Fofaria is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.