DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) - Dale Earnhardt Jr. swerved below Danica Patrick, powered past Greg Biffle and pulled in behind leader Jimmie Johnson.
It was the closest he came to the front of the field.
Earnhardt used a last-lap charge Sunday to finish second in the Daytona 500 for the third time in the last four years, another runner-up performance that left NASCAR's most popular driver clamoring to get back to Victory Lane at one of auto racing's showcase events.
"It's like a drug, I assume," said Earnhardt, who also finished second in 2010 and 2012. "It's such a high. You just don't know when you'll ever get that opportunity again or if you'll ever get that opportunity again. I knew before I won in 2004, I was reserved to the idea I may be trying to win this race my entire career because I knew all too well how that was for my father."
Johnson held off Earnhardt to win the Daytona 500 for the second time.
For Earnhardt, it was another oh-so-close finish in "The Great American Race," an event forever linked to his family name because of triumph and tragedy.
"I felt so much relief when I did win it," Earnhardt said. "I'm ready to do it again. It's been too long. Running second over and over is great and all for our team, a good start to the season. Even having to go through all the hassle that Jimmie is about to go through this week, it's worth it."
The second-place finish turned around what had been a lackluster Speedweeks for Earnhardt, whose father died from a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500.
Junior qualified 19th for the race, his lowest starting spot in 14 years at the Daytona 500. His confidence remained high, though, possibly because he was glad to be rid of the clunky Car of Tomorrow and the tricky tandem racing that came with it at repaved Daytona.
So it was no huge surprise to see him near the front late in the race.
But instead of taking risks and pulling out of line in hopes of taking the lead, he simply waited for the right opportunity to make a move.
It came during the final 21â„2 miles. And with help from Mark Martin. Their crews agreed to team up on a late restart with six laps to go in the 200-lap race.
"Obviously I knew Junior had a fast car and is one of the masters here, certainly would trust his judgment," Martin said. "If things would have got crazy enough, maybe we could have got the big trophy."
They settled for the podium.
"I think it's important to get a good start points-wise," Earnhardt said. "It's important to put a good foundation of points together. If you get behind early, it seems like you're still chasing that Chase spot at Richmond."
Earnhardt made the Chase for the championship last year, but finished 12th after missing two of the final six races because of post-concussion symptoms.
Nonetheless, running in the top five in points most of the season and spending a few weeks atop the standings provided a big boost for an ultra-popular driver trying to win his first Cup championship.
"We're a good team," he said. "Hopefully we can keep the pressure on them and stay up in the top five in the points and win some races. I want to really try to win some more races this year. That's our focus."
The redesigned car could be the key to making it happen. Earnhardt managed just two wins over the last six years in the previous car.
Of course, it could be weeks, maybe months, before Earnhardt knows how his No. 88 Chevrolet will stack up in 2013.