INDIANAPOLIS -- If it's true that "one man's loss is another man's gain," Dale Earnhardt Jr. was easily the biggest beneficiary of Matt Kenseth's misfortune Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
When Kenseth couldn't avoid smacking into Joey Logano's out-of-control car with 26 laps remaining -- and Earnhardt went on to finish fourth -- it resulted in major implications at the top of the Sprint Cup points standings.
The resulting 30-point swing meant Earnhardt left Indianapolis with a 14-point lead over Kenseth, the first time he's led the points this late in the season since 2004. It also left Kenseth frustrated with the way things played out once he wound up deep in the field after losing track position on a pit stop.
"We got back there and some guys were driving pretty crazy," Kenseth said. "I guess at the very end of it,"[Trevor Bayne and Regan Smith] were mad at each other and running into each other and then [Logano] was trying to pass [Bayne] and just lost control of his car."
Kenseth went to the high side in the short chute between Turns 1 and 2 in a valiant but ultimately futile attempt to avoid Logano's spinning car. He climbed from his damaged car, put on his ball cap, angrily tossed his gloves and shoe heel protectors inside the cockpit and waited for the mandatory ride to the infield medical center.
"Yeah, it is frustrating," Kenseth said. "I got hung out on the restart, which is one thing. I was trying to get through there, and [Tony Stewart] wiped the whole side off my car in the straightaway for no reason and that kind of made me mad.
"I was in front of [Marcos Ambrose] and saw he had a run, so I went down to block and he went across the grass and shot me up out of the groove there. It is crazy there at the end. You could see the wreck happening, and I was just hoping I wasn't going to be in it."
As frustrated as Kenseth was with his day, Earnhardt's elation was evident in the way he described his ninth top-five season of the season. That leaves him just one behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson. And it was his 21st consecutive lead-lap finish, which ties the all-time record held by another Hendrick teammate, Jeff Gordon.
That's pretty good company, when you consider those two have cmbined for nine Cup championships.
"I'm proud of that because it says a lot about our body of work," Earnhardt said. "All season long, we've been working hard and finishing well. That is symbolic of how well we've done. I'm proud of that. I have felt that way about our position in points all season long."
Earnhardt's goal in 2012 is to add his name to that list. Leading the points right now is all fine and dandy, but you don't have to be a student of history to realize how race wins trump consistency. All you have to do is look back to last season, when Stewart won five times in the Chase to overcome Carl Edwards, who strung together nine top-10 finishes during that same span.
Earnhardt certainly paid attention, and that's primarily his focus as this year's Chase looms in the distance.
"We need to win more races," he said. "If we want to win the championship, we have to. I imagine we can win a couple races in the Chase. I don't know if finishing fourth or fifth is going to do it. We'll just have to see. We'd like to step it up just a little bit more."
He definitely stepped it up Sunday at a track which has been difficult for him, to say the least. His previous best finish was sixth in 2006.
That was clearly on Earnhardt's mind all weekend long. With the improvement on the track, there's a new-found desire to achieve where achievements previously have been lacking. One place where he felt he could make major improvement was at the Brickyard.
"We were looking forward to this race," Earnhardt said. "I want to run well here, want to win this race, want to get a trophy here and go to Victory Lane."
He didn't qualify particularly well, starting 20th. But it was evident from the drop of the green flag that his No. 88 Chevrolet was something special. He gained 10 positions before the first round of green-flag stops.
"We were really excited about our car the first run, happy with how it was driving," Earnhardt said. "I don't know how fast the leaders were, but I thought the car had excellent speed and drivability."
"We messed with the balance a little bit throughout the race. It wasn't perfect at the end. I think we got the best we could with the car and the speed that we had. I'm happy with that. My teammate got the win. We had a good run. I would like to win here, but I'm going to have to wait until next year."