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Dale Earnhardt Jr. relieved with runner-up finish in Atlanta after Daytona 500 crash

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500

HAMPTON, GA - FEBRUARY 28: Dale Earnhardt Jr, driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet, leads a pack of cars during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on February 28, 2016 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

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A week after he crashed in the Daytona 500 and placed 36th, Dale Earnhardt Jr. bounced back with a runner-up finish Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

“It was critical for us to rebound,’’ Earnhardt said after finishing behind only teammate Jimmie Johnson. “Two terrible finishes in a row would put us in such a deep hole points‑wise. What if we could struggle through the year and come close but not win any races? We don’t need to cut it close on points.

“I know we really don’t worry about points racing anymore, but when you start the year with two bad runs, you start counting points.’’

Earnhardt is 18th in the standings, 10 points behind 10th place.

He said he was surprised how Sunday’s race went so long without a caution.

“I thought I was going to tear my tires up because I went out there and ran too hard, and I thought I was definitely going to shred a right rear or something early in the race,’’ Earnhardt said. “I was surprised that nobody had any tire issues, but you saw us all start to short pit very soon.

“I think that’s great for the sport that we have the tires that are falling off and the cars that are challenging to drive. You don’t want cars that are easy to drive. You don’t want to look at the guy beside you and think, ‘He ain’t got the talent I’ve got, but he’s got the same opportunity because the cars are so easy.’ Everybody thinks they’re the best driver out there, so you want to make the cars as challenging as possible so you take that out of the equation, and it just comes down to talent.’’

A runner-up finish and a difficult race more than pleased Earnhardt.

“I’m sure other guys were probably hanging onto the seat more than I was, and again, on old tires the cars were so hard to drive, it was awesome,’’ he said. “Today it seemed like you could move around and pass guys a whole lot easier, and you wouldn’t get terribly tight behind them. Actually, a couple times I drove up to guys in the corner. I ain’t done that in three years, four years, be able to drive to a guy’s bumper in the corner.’’

Now Earnhardt looks ahead to next weekend’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“That place is getting wore out and that makes it more fun,’’ he said. “We should be hanging on. These things are quite a handful. I’m looking forward to that challenge. It’s a whole new ballgame now.’’

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