TALLADEGA, Ala. - Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s initial reaction to another runner-up finish is a smile and the feeling that second's not so bad.
The what-ifs don't really play through his mind until later, when he ponders everything he might have done differently to finish that one tantalizing spot higher.
Earnhardt had to settle for his fourth second-place finish this year Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway when Jamie McMurray captured the victory in a race finished under caution after a last-lap crash.
"I'm not going to complain too much because I'm driving some of the best cars in the garage, and got some of the best engines," Earnhardt said. "Being at a place like that, it really means a lot.
"It's frustrating because the worst part about it really is you go home and you'll spend months thinking about what you could have done to not be second. That's the worst part about it. Actually, the process of it happening and doing it isn't that bad. I'm kind of happy with being competitive, and it was a good result - until you'll go back and think of the million things you could have tried different."
If the fan favorite had a final maneuver to get him past McMurray, he never got to make it.
The result was another close call. Earnhardt has won a personal-best five times at Talladega, including a string of four straight that ended in the spring of 2003. He won again the following year but now his drought at the huge tri-oval has reached 18 races.
Having led laps at 25 of his 28 career starts at Talladega is small comfort. So are the four second-place finishes.
Earnhardt figures his No. 88 Chevrolet has been strong enough to win recent races. He's been second in two of the last five races with four top-10s.
"Man, I'm going to tell you, looking at our runs since Chicago, this is the best my car's been all year," he said. "I've had some of the best cars the last five races that I've had all season. They say they're not doing anything different, but they sure are running really good.
"I think we're right around the corner from winning one of these races, and we're just going to keep trying."
This time he felt his car was strong enough to hang around up front, a strategy he's watched Matt Kenseth successfully pull off in restrictor plate races. Earnhardt led 36 laps, second only to new points leader Jimmie Johnson's 47.
He's tried running in the back of the pack and hoping to avoid the seemingly inevitable trouble with drivers squeezing three- and four-wide across the track, only to find himself stuck. And maybe eventually wrecked.
"We always end up packed up behind that mess and then we find our way into the last-lap wreck," Earnhardt said. "The car was pretty good in practice and I felt like if I could get up there in front, that seems to be working for Matt. He's been doing really well this year on plate tracks, and he's always toward the front and never has to worry about working his way toward the front on that last pit stop. We were good enough today to do that.
"In the past, I've tried to do it and made the wrong move and found myself in back any way. I was really strong today."