DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - It was just after 1 a.m. today, fog had replaced fire and rain as the dominant element at Daytona International Speedway, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. was tired.
A seemingly endless Daytona 500 had finally ended and Dale Jr. had come up half an instant short of ending his 129-winless race streak. Matt Kenseth had beaten Dale Jr. to the checkered flag earning the respect that comes with winning one of the strangest events in the 54 runnings of the 500 but minus the uncommon passion that an Earnhardt victory would have provoked.
That's not a criticism of Kenseth, a consummate pro, but Earnhardt is the sport's most popular driver with no one a close second.
For all this Daytona 500 had - from Sunday to Monday and finally into the wee hours of Tuesday morning - it didn't end with Earnhardt in Victory Lane.
When he's had some sleep and time to think about what, if anything, he could have done differently to beat Kenseth, Earnhardt knows the second-place finish will eat at him. If there was something he could have done differently at the end, Earnhardt would have done it. But there was no easy or nagging answer.
And that was OK.
"I'm very happy. I'm really in a good place," Earnhardt said when he was asked about his seemingly somber post-race mood.
He sounded like he meant it. Fatigue had crept in.
It's too early to make any definitive judgments about what this Sprint Cup season may or may not be. The Daytona 500 is a unique creature, massive in magnitude and meaning, but the racing will look and feel different on Sunday when the Sprint Cup tour rolls into Phoenix (where the long-range forecast suggests no chance of weekend rain).
This was a different kind of Daytona 500. NASCAR found a way to solve the two-car tandem racing that had diluted restrictor plate racing the previous year or two, bringing back pack racing. It was more interesting and, while it didn't lead to wild fluctuations in the lead, it was an improvement over what's been seen at Daytona and Talladega recently.
Driving through the middle of the race, Earnhardt said he wondered how the fans liked what they were seeing. The race started with a wreck that took Jimmie Johnson out at the start of the second lap and spoiled Danica Patrick's Sprint Cup debut, sweeping her up in the first of a handful of multi-car messes along the front stretch. It ended with neither Earnhardt nor Greg Biffle, who finished third, able to make a run at Kenseth over the closing mile.
"There wasn't a ton of action," Earnhardt said. "The low line had a dominant deal going there and the top couldn't get any action happening...Everybody was fine with how things were going."
After waiting out Sunday's rain-forced postponement and a secondary schedule change to Monday's 7 p.m. start, there was the bizarre two-hour red flag period after Juan Pablo Montoya created a firestorm by crashing into a jet-dryer loaded with 200 gallons of fuel during a caution period. It was as scary as it was spectacular.
By the time the race reached its green-white-checkered flag finish, Earnhardt was near the front with Kenseth and Biffle who, along with Denny Hamlin, had shown they had the fastest cars. Kenseth led the restart and never surrendered the lead.
Earnhardt pushed Biffle but in the new race set-up, it wasn't enough to propel them past Kenseth. The best Earnhardt could do was slip past Biffle to finish second.
"I saw Greg try to get a move going on the back," Earnhardt said. "It looked like Matt defended that real well. I waited for Greg to have another opportunity in Turn Four and it didn't seem to be materializing."
It never did.
All Earnhardt could do was watch Kenseth beat him to the stripe.
From a big-picture perspective, it was a good start for Earnhardt, another sign that he's close to ending the winless streak he seems to carry like an anvil on his back. He's at his best on restrictor-plate tracks but he can win on other tracks, too.
"I'm fine," Earnhardt said. "I think that we did everything we could at the end."
Everything but win.
He'll get another chance Sunday in Phoenix.