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Somber-looking Dale Earnhardt Jr.: 10th-place finish just isn’t good enough anymore

Jul 13, 2014, 5:46 PM EDT

(Photo: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images) Getty Images

Dale Earnhardt Jr. looked like he had just gone through the roughest workout of his career.

When TNT cameras caught up with him after his 10th-place finish in Sunday’s Camping World RV Sales 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Earnhardt’s face was not only red, he seemed short of breath, looked significantly frustrated and exasperated – and appeared almost on the verge of tears.

Which is odd because with his 10th-place finish, Junior officially clinched his berth for the upcoming revamped and expanded Chase for the Sprint Cup.

“That was frustrating,” Earnhardt said with a somber look on his face. “That was the hardest I’ve ever worked for a 10th-place finish.

“It’s been a real frustrating weekend, to be honest. The guys worked real hard, Steve (crew chief Steve Letarte) and the engineers did their best to get the car more competitive, but just to be lacking that much speed against a lot of guys and I had to drive so perfect every lap, it was just so frustrating.”

With wins in the season-opening Daytona 500 and last month at Pocono, Earnhardt can take solace that there’s no way he can miss the Chase now.

But still, Earnhardt did not take Sunday’s finish easily. It might be because a 10th-place finish in the fall Chase return to New Hampshire very well might not be good enough to advance to the second or third elimination rounds of the 10-race playoff.

“I don’t know, man, I wish we were better,” Earnhardt said. “We’re going to have to come back here (in the fall Chase race) and run better to have a shot at the Chase. But, we’ll keep working. Tenth-place: I’m really disappointed.”

At the same time, Earnhardt’s demeanor and appearance said a lot about how far he’s come and how much he’s grown this season as a Sprint Cup driver.

Whereas in many of his previous 14 Sprint Cup seasons, he’d have been happy to have just finished in the top 15 or 20.

But if he’s not contending for a win now, it’s simply not good enough for Junior.

“I remember when we used to like these (10th-place finishes),” Earnhardt said.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

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